Looking back on the previous year, it is clear we are in the midst of a plant-based revolution. From “The Game Changers” on Netflix to Beyond Meat’s $240 million IPO and the launch of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King, 2019 was the year that plant-based foods made a mainstream splash. As we begin to realize the impact our food choices have on personal health, the environment, and the future health of the planet, plant-based foods are emerging from the dusty corners of health food stores to the prized shelves of grocery stores and starring on menus in restaurants of all shapes and sizes.
While U.S. retail food sales grew just 4% over the last two years, sales of plant-based foods have grown 31%. With this kind of growth, you may not be able to shop or dine without seeing “plant-based” or “vegan” popping up on shelves and menus. It can all feel a bit daunting and confusing. You may be thinking, “What does it all mean and how does it apply to me?” “Plant-based” can be defined in several ways, but in short, plant-based foods are those made without the use of animal products such as dairy, eggs, and meat. Eating a predominantly “plant-based diet” generally means getting most or all of your calories from these types of foods rather than from animal-derived foods.
Veganism, however, extends beyond a diet. It is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as much as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose. Veganism includes an exclusive dedication to plant-based eating. Not everyone who follows a plant-based diet is a vegan, but a plant-based diet certainly can serve as a route into a vegan lifestyle for those willing and able to make that commitment.
The overall increase in plant-based eating is driven just as much by someone eating more plant-based foods than they normally do (even if that means plant-based foods go from 30% to 40% of their diet) as by those deciding to consume plant-based foods exclusively or predominantly. Every little bit helps.
One of the key drivers for the shift toward a more plant-based diet is the growing understanding that what we eat impacts how we feel and how we perform each day. Learning more about our personal relationships to the foods we eat can be incredibly powerful for our longterm well-being. Incorporating more plant-based, whole foods into your meals can help to lower the risk for common health issues such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
If you do consider making a similar shift, having a well-planned diet to meet your nutritional needs is essential. Without animal products, it is important to make sure you’re including foods that contain key nutrients, vitamins, and minerals such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fat, iron, and iodine. Loading up your pantry with whole food ingredients such as beans, greens, lentils, tofu, nuts, and seeds can help keep nutrients in balance.
A well-balanced diet of any type requires us to take deeper interest in our how what we eat influences how we feel, mentally and physically. Take some time to find what works for you, whether through your own research or consulting with a professional. Although reducing or cutting out animal products has been shown to have health benefits, that doesn’t mean everything “plant-based” is good for you. As so many new products arrive on store shelves, it can be easy to get sucked into a vortex of heavily processed, convenient foods that are nutritionally lacking.
Don’t Have A Cow
Another key driver of this movement is the growing consensus that intensive, factory-driven animal agriculture significantly contributes to many of the environmental issues we face today, such as high methane and carbon dioxide levels and polluted waterways. Globally, animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation. According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the U.S. Much of the modern Western world was raised on a meat- and dairy-centric diet, with vegetables, fruits, and grains being a side or an afterthought. As the worldwide population grows, the reality is our planet cannot support this modern Western diet. We cannot sit on our hands and wait for change to happen to ensure our planet is habitable for our children and grandchildren. One of the most immediate, high-impact actions we can take to confront climate change is to eat a plant-based diet.
While the benefits of reducing animal products are becoming clearer, confronting our habits, culture, and personal history can be a daunting task. So much of our personal identity is wrapped up in the foods we eat, the way we shop, what comforts us, and what we crave. The foods we cook and the meals we share reflect our family, history, culture, beliefs, and communities.
Over the past few years, as I have researched our food systems, I have begun to realize that the way I have eaten my whole life may be having a negative impact on me and the world around me. Confronting my beliefs and decades of education in food, along with deeply ingrained family food traditions driven by parents who devoted themselves to the food industry, has been a personal challenge, often rearing its head daily. However, the challenge of shifting to a predominantly plant-based diet has improved my skills in the kitchen and taught me about new ingredients. It has inspired me to cook more, develop a taste for new flavor, and realize that plant-based does not mean flavorless—quite the opposite! The journey so far has been enlightening; not always easy, occasionally inconvenient, but perhaps the least I can do to ensure a healthier future.
I often hear friends and family say, “I could never be vegan or give up cheese, ice cream, etc.,” which may be true, but the way we eat does not have to be black and white. Starting a new lifestyle cold turkey (forgive the pun) rarely works. You don’t have to commit to an unrealistic shift in your diet tomorrow, but you can try something new and enact small changes, one at a time. Start by orienting yourself toward action and finding the low-hanging fruit to make incremental adjustments.
Changing a lifelong habit is hard. Changing one meal can be simple. Maybe that’s trying “Meatless Monday” or swapping dairy in your coffee to a plant-based creamer. Once you’re used to that, you could aim to make every third dinner “meatless,” or only eat plant-based before dinner. You could even switch from dairy to a plant-based ice cream. Over time, these changes can become habits and maybe even help you create new traditions with your friends and family.