What Exactly Is Plant-Based?
The term ‘plant-based’ has been thrown around the worlds of health professionals, fitness communities and social media alike for several years now. You might have even seen the recent Netflix phenomenon The Game Changers sparking some serious debate as of late. But the trend has proven itself to be more than just a fad, and it seems this global shift in eating habits is here to stay. The number of people transitioning their diets to full or partly plant-based is growing every year and can be attributed to many factors: like a growing awareness in the health, environmental, cost and ethical benefits of reducing your meat and dairy intake.
So what exactly does ‘plant-based’ mean? There is a misconception that 'plant-based' is synonymous with a vegan diet and this can deter people before they’ve even considered the change. The premise of abstaining from animal products completely can often be intimidating - but in actuality, plant-based eating places an emphasis on eating mainly whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, and reducing the intake of meat and dairy products wherever possible rather than eliminating it altogether.
Essentially, veganism is focused on eliminating animals and animal products from your diet entirely, whereas plant-based is about upping dietary fibre and vegetable intake, and steering clear of saturated fats, refined sugars and artificial ingredients. Often, those who choose plant-based options do so for a couple of days per week to reduce their overall meat/fish intake.
Australians Do Not Eat Enough Vegetables
Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on over the plant-based debate, there is no denying that almost everyone could stand to eat more vegetables. In fact, according to Nutrition Australia, a staggering 96% of Australian’s do not eat enough vegetables each day (1). If you think back to your school days, you may remember seeing the internationally recognised Healthy Food Pyramid. In the past, bread, grains and cereals made up the bottom (and largest) tier. It has recently been updated to better reflect modern research that fruits and vegetables should make up the bulk of your diet, with bread and cereals just above. As before, meat, dairy and poultry should make up only a small portion (a recommended maximum of 15%) of your meals each day.
According to current data, it seems Australia’s food pyramid has been almost flipped upside down. Compared to the rest of the globe, we eat three times as much meat – roughly 93kg per person per year (2). We are also consuming far too many ‘discretionary foods’ like junk food, soft drink and processed meats each day. In fact, current statistics suggest that as much as two-thirds of our energy is coming from these high sugar, high fat and nutrient-devoid foods (3).
A Day On Your Plate As Recommended By A Dietitian
Australian dietitians recommend balancing the number of carbs, fats and protein on your plate to their appropriate ratio, which is influenced by the amount of energy you are expending. In most instances, this means eating a serving whereby plant foods make up the majority of your plate.
According to the Cancer Council, a recommended size serving of red meat is equivalent to:
- 1/2 cup minced meat
- 2 small chops
- 2 slices roast meat (4)
Most Australians will probably be shocked to read those recommended amounts as we have become so accustomed to piling our plates high with meals that are comprised mostly of meat! The reality is that eating this way for extended periods can be seriously detrimental to your health and wellbeing.
For a balanced diet that ensures you are receiving the most comprehensive array of vitamins, micro and macronutrients, you need to be eating a range of different coloured vegetables every day. Think leafy greens, starchy and cruciferous vegetables, legumes and beans. It’s also important to include seeds, grains and cereals. An easy way to consume a more diverse range of veggies is to aim to ‘eat the rainbow’.
How Eating Plant-Based Can Enhance Your Health
Countless studies investigating the ideal parameters for a healthy diet have been conducted by a myriad of health-related agencies in modern times. As outlined by the National Health and Medical Research Council in 2013: ‘The scientific evidence for the health benefits of consuming vegetables, including legumes/beans, has been strong for several decades and has generally continued to strengthen over recent years, particularly the evidence for a protective effect against cardiovascular disease.'(5)
Evidence has always suggested that vegetables are a crucial part of a balanced diet, and it seems that science is continually in favour of diets that are plant-centred. In fact, National Geographic’s recent ‘Blue Zone’ studies have revealed that all across the world, the diets of the groups of people who consistently live longest have one major thing in common: they are plant-based (6).
But in this modern day of overeating and over-processed foods advertised on every street corner, it’s all too easy to take the junk food route time after time. In 2015, a report by 22 international experts from the World Health Organisation voiced a loud and clear warning, deeming the consumption of processed meat by humans as ‘probably carcinogenic’ (7). Though it is certainly an inconvenient truth, all the evidence is there: humans eat too much processed meat, and there is really no argument against this anymore.
Plant-based diets are high in fibre, nutrients and minerals, and conversely are relatively devoid of saturated fats, cholesterol and artificial ingredients. Naturally, this leads to better weight management and lower risk of related illnesses like cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes (8). Furthermore, the body is much more efficient at breaking down plants over meat and dairy, and this may see positive improvements in the gut and skin health (9), and many people even report having enhanced sleep and energy (10).
While meats and dairy products can be rich in vitamins and minerals, the same can be said for an enormous variety of fruits and vegetables. In fact, with advances in farming and importation, there is increased availability of most vegetable staples and seasonal veggies all year round. With a little bit of planning, there is really no reason a person can’t get most of their nutrients through plants alone.
Environmental & Ethical Considerations
Health benefits aside, many people are opting for a plant-based lifestyle based on the emerging evidence that forgoing meat is better for the planet and the animals that live within it. This global shift in consumer trends has been heavily influenced by the growing realisation that the Earth is in desperate need of change – both in the way we think and the way we eat.
As the world’s population continues to grow, so does demand for food, namely meat and other highly processed products. If the Earth is to feed the almost 10 billion people that are estimated to inhabit it by 2050 (11), the world needs to get smarter about how it uses its precious resources to grow food (12).
In reality, it takes an enormous amount of land, water and energy to farm cows, sheep, chickens and pigs. In fact, it may shock you to learn that:
- Livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions (13)
- About 9,465 litres of water is needed to produce 450g of beef (or 2,500 gallons per one pound) (14)
- Livestock occupies 45% of Earth's total landmass (15)
Consequently, the competitive pressure on farmers to produce more meat at cheaper prices leads to cost-cutting practices across the board. This means in places where agriculture laws are not so stringent, animals are factory farmed in less than ideal conditions - often being raised in extremely confined spaces, fed growth hormones and pumped with antibiotics. Not only is this inhumane, the distressing living conditions can lead to a meat product that is both inferior and potentially detrimental to human health (due to exposure to added chemicals and hormones) (16).
With all this to consider, it’s no wonder that the number of people consciously reducing their meat intake is rising every year. According to the UK’s Waitrose 2018 Food and Drink Report, at least one-third of Britons are actively reducing their meat intake (17), and the vegetarian and vegan food market is booming. That trend is only following suit here in Australia, with initiatives like ‘Meatless Mondays’ become widespread and openly adopted. In fact, research has argued that for every person forgoing meat in one meal a week, a tonne of CO2 emissions are saved across the year (18). By this estimation, Australia could save almost 25 million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year by eating plant-based for just one meal a week! Small acts can lead to big change.
Alternatives & The Future Of Meat
For many people who live on a standard Western diet, it’s hard to imagine a meal without meat, let alone eating multiple meals a week comprised entirely of plant-based foods! The reality is that there are countless ways to include more veg and less meat in your cooking and eating habits – and with the enormous collection of free recipes available on the internet, accessibility to inspiration is easier than ever before.
But while veggies are delicious, for many of us there’s a place in our hearts that a zucchini frittata just can’t fill. Luckily, there are innovative food products out there for those who can’t bear to part with their steaks in the form of plant-based meat products. Designed to look, feel, taste and even bleed like meat, these new cutting-edge ‘meats’ are designed to allow consumers to get the enjoyment of eating meat while being entirely plant-based.
Beyond Meat is an American company that produces mock beef, pork and chicken with the goal to provide an authentic tasting meat substitute that enables people to enjoy a meat-like experience whilst reducing their intake. Utilising the building blocks of meat: protein, fat, minerals, carbohydrates and water, Beyond Meat sources these compounds directly from plants instead.
Since its beginnings in 2009, Beyond Meat has grown massively through the support of powerhouses like Bill Gates, Biz Stone and the Humane Society. It is now available across the world in supermarkets, restaurants and fast-food chains, making it easily accessible and quick to prepare.
Through their products, Beyond Meat aims to:
- Improve human health
- Positively impact climate change
- Address global resource constraints and
- Improve animal welfare
In fact, research shows that in comparison to the red meat they are emanating, Beyond Meat uses 99% less water, 93% less energy and 46% less energy to produce (19).
Taking it one step further than Beyond Meat, Memphis Meats represents the future of the global meat market. Instead of using plants to mimic animal products, the company ‘grows’ meat from cells in order to replicate the genetic make-up of meat, producing an authentic taste, texture and smell.
Comprised by a team of scientists, engineers and designers, Memphis Meats is funded by the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson. While their product is not commercially available yet, once perfected, faux meat products such as Memphis Meats are predicted to become the future of the food industry.
This will be in response to the growing demands of a rapidly expanding global population, which places enormous strain on the planet’s limited resources. Memphis Meats predicts it will use an estimated 90% less water, land and gas emissions to produce its products in comparison to animal agriculture. Perhaps most impressive, the finished product ‘[will not] require consumers to change any of their habits,’ as explained by CEO Uma Valeti.
Flexi Eating And Changing Attitudes
In today’s world of vast and varied attitudes about food and diet, the stigmas surrounding certain dietary choices are slowly but surely breaking down. Just the same, the availability of information, meat alternatives and organic produce are becoming more readily available.
People are also becoming less strict about labelling the food choices they make. No longer is it important to remain within the confines of vegan or vegetarian. Instead, people are adopting ‘flexi’ or ‘reducetarian’ lifestyles, choosing to eat according to what is in season, fresh and healthy while consciously reducing their meat and dairy intake. The removal of such restrictive labels can allow most people to continue enjoying a balanced and delicious diet while also becoming more conscious of the planet and their health.
With an abundance of easily accessible, free and engaging food-related content available on the internet, there is really no excuse not to give plant-based recipes a try. Simply start by googling veggie curries, stir-fries, pasta and salads, and see where it leads you. You will find YouTube channels dedicated to plant-based diets featuring videos such as ‘what I eat in a day’ to give you endless inspiration and ideas. There are even countless versions of plant-based alternatives to your favourite comfort foods like parmigiana, shepherd’s pie and pizza - to name just a few. As a bonus incentive, meals without meat can sometimes be faster, easier or cheaper to prepare!
When Including Meat In Your Meals...
If you feel that an entirely plant-based diet is too imposing for you – start with baby steps. Begin with one meat-free dinner a week and ease away from thinking of meat as the focal point of your meals. Easier yet, simply reduce the portion size of meat on your plate and look to double the quantity of veg.
When buying meat, think first about where your produce is coming from. Steer away from supermarkets and try to support local butchers that source from organic, ethical farms if possible. Not only will the quality of the meat be better, but you will also be supporting small businesses and can ask questions to learn more about where your food is coming from. Yes, the cost may be greater, but eating less meat will negate this, and therefore you can afford to spend more if you decide to treat yourself to a steak.
Most importantly, it is a good idea to remove processed meats (and other heavily processed foods) completely from your diet. They tend to be more detrimental to the environment and your health due to the added steps and ingredients within them. At times it can be difficult just to decipher what’s in a packet due to misleading labelling. By cutting these types of foods out, you are removing the unknowns. After all, our health is the most important thing we have – it can never hurt to be surer of what you are putting in your body.
If you’re interested in making some easy adjustments within your diet in order to increase plant-based foods, here are some ideas to get you started.
True Whey Protein
Vegan 85 or True Superfood
Legumes, beans, tofu, tempeh, Beyond Meat
Chia seeds + water
While taking the plant-based plunge may seem daunting at first, it’s nothing that can’t be worked towards over a period of time. A global movement towards plant foods is occurring right now as people all over the western world shift their views about what healthy eating looks and feels like.
With the right research, planning and intentions, a plant-focused diet can easily become an enjoyable and non-restrictive way to live and eat. It’s less about staying within the confines of labels and more about eating in a way that harks back to the way our ancestors did, and the way humans were essentially designed to eat (before mass-scale food production was invented): small, balanced portions of natural whole foods.
This entire blog could perhaps best be summarised by the famous haiku by food author Michael Pollen: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ Your heart, health and the Earth will thank you for it.
- https://data.oecd.org/agroutput/meat-consumption.htm, https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2016/10/13/do-we-eat-too-much-meat
- Buettner, D. 2017, The Blue Zone Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People
- Frank B Hu, Plant-based foods and prevention of cardiovascular disease: an overview, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 78, Issue 3, September 2003, Pages 544S–551S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/78.3.544S
- Clark, A.K.; Haas, K.N.; Sivamani, R.K. Edible Plants and Their Influence on the Gut Microbiome and Acne. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2017, 18, 1070
- Georgetown Environmental Law Review, Oct. 2015, https://gelr.org/2015/10/23/a-leading-cause-of-everything-one-industry-that-is-destroying-our-planet-and-our-ability-to-thrive-on-it-georgetown-environmental-law-review/
- Pimentel, David, et al. "Water Resources: Agricultural and Environmental Issues". BioScience (2004) 54 (10): 909-918, https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/54/10/909/230205
- Thornton, Phillip, et al. "Livestock and climate change". Livestock xchange. International Livestock Research Institute. November 2011, https://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/handle/10568/10601/IssueBrief3.pdf