Plant-based diets are in vogue. And, given the numerous benefits these diets have to offer, it’s perhaps not surprising. For years, scientists have been studying the widely lauded Mediterranean diet, trying to uncover its longevity stretching secrets.
Today, the consensus is that the health-boosting prowess of the Mediterranean diet stems from its larger proportion of fresh fruit and veg relative to dairy and meat, which has ignited the ascent of the plant-based diet.
To avoid confusion, plant-based diets are not synonymous with vegetarianism or veganism – they don’t involve cutting out meat or dairy completely. Instead, these diets redress the traditional dietary balance by advocating a lowering of meat and dairy intake, while increasing consumption of fruit and veg.
So what exactly are the benefits to be had from switching to a plant-based diet?
Fruit and veg both tend to be packed with vitamins and fibre, and herein lies the main advantage of plant-based diets.
An abundant intake of vitamins and fibre helps to reduce your risk of heart disease, decrease your chances of contracting type-2 diabetes, lower your susceptibility to certain cancers, and to promote the health of your gut’s good bacteria.
And what’s more, diets that emphasise the consumption of fruit and veg over meat and dairy can dramatically cut your intake of the villains of the dietary world, saturated fats.
But meat and dairy shouldn’t be thought of too harshly. While they are the main dietary sources of saturated fats, they’re also providers of many vital vitamins and nutrients – most notably protein and calcium.
One of the main advantages of plant-based diets is that they don’t cut out meat and dairy all together. Because of this, plant-based diets offer many of the same nutritional advantages as vegetarianism and veganism, without incurring the risk of deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals that’s carried by these meat-free diets.
But none the less, it’s still important to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs.
So be careful not to buy too many processed fruit and vegetable products. These generally contain much less in the way of nutrients than their fresh counterparts, and much more in the way of additives, salt and sugar.
They help reduce greenhouse emissions
As it happens, eating less meat and diary can be beneficial for the environment too. Believe it or not, livestock ranks as the third largest producer of greenhouse emissions behind transportation and the burning of fossil fuels to produce power.
Eating less meat and diary means fewer livestock animals out there on farms, and therefore fewer animals producing greenhouse gases.
Generally, they’re cheaper
Meat is expensive. This is especially true of red meats, and meats of higher quality. Dairy, especially cheese, is often costly too. On the other hand, fruit and veg, generally, are cheaper. So it’s not difficult work out that switching to a plant-based diet can save you money.
And this presents the option for swapping quantity for quality too. The money saved by eating less meat and dairy can be reinvested in your diet by buying better quality meats and diary products for those less frequent occasions either does feature on your dinner plate.
So, maybe a little ironically, switching to a plant-based diet might actually give you the opportunity to enjoy meat and dairy more than you previously did.
Are there any drawbacks?
Although plant based diets help to reduce the greenhouse emissions created by livestock, without care, those reductions might be replaced in the form of transport emissions. Fruit and veg are more likely to be shipped further around the world as they have a tendency to keep longer than meat and some dairy products.
So those of us who eat plant based diets – and for that matter even those of us who don’t – should try to eat fruit and veg grown closer to home. This is one of the best ways to ensure that our dietary choices really are as eco friendly as they can be.
And also, as unfortunately is often the case, not everyone’s a winner – even with healthy diets.
Livestock farmers have recently begun voicing concerns that the increasing shift towards plant-based diets may decrease demand for their produce and has the potential to emerge as a threat to their livelihoods.
The consolation, though, is that even if the trend continues and more of us continue to eat less meat and dairy, the change is likely to be gradual. This should at least allow livestock farmers time to adapt to these changes.
So as long as you’re mainly eating fresh fruit and veg, and that it’s sourced closer to home rather than further away, plant-based diets, by and large, are a win-win.
They’ll boost your health, help limit damage to the environment and reduce the size of your shopping bill.
So if you haven’t thought about making the switch already, perhaps you should, and not just reap the health benefits, but also do your bit to protect the environment.