Not too long ago, the term “plant-based” felt like part of a secret language only dietitians and food bloggers understood, rigid in its dos and don’ts, and a challenge to sustain long-term (setting a reminder to soak your chia seeds overnight, anyone?). And if you messed up once and had that juicy cheeseburger, well, then, what was the point of even trying?
But these days, thanks to a slew of popular documentaries, books, blogs, and innovative plant-based food brands like Almondmilk-maker Califia Farms — as well as an increased awareness of the impact your eating habits can have on your body and the environment — plant-based eating has become decidedly more inclusive and accessible. In other words, you don't have to be a health fanatic to want to eat well. Structuring your daily meals around the good green (and red and yellow) stuff, even if you’re not going all plant, all the time, has become an ever-growing lifestyle choice for anyone looking to take better care of themselves and the planet.
As a refresher, a plant-based diet is one made up of foods derived from plants, including whole grains, veggies, nuts, seeds, fruit, and legumes, with few or no animal products. As T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University, and one of the country’s biggest advocates of the dietary shift explains, “A plant-based diet is more likely to produce good health and to reduce sharply the risk of heart problems, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, gallstones, and kidney disease.”
And the chronic diseases are just the beginning. The wealth of vitamins, antioxidants, and nutrients like resveratrol in fruits and vegetables — not to mention the healthy fats in nuts and seeds — all work overtime to make your skin glow. It's been proven that adopting a plant-based diet not only boosts the good bacteria in the gut, but your overall energy levels, too.
But beyond the health benefits, what — if anything — is the larger impact of going plant-based? And is it great enough to justify, what is for many, a fairly drastic lifestyle change?
For starters, when you consider all the different ways reducing your meat and animal-product consumption benefits the environment, the numbers are pretty astonishing. The Worldwatch Institute reports that livestock production is responsible for up to 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The manure from animals, millions and millions of tons of it, produces methane — a gas that warms the planet 20 times faster than carbon dioxide. And that’s not to mention that a third of arable land is used to grow the crops the livestock consumes, leading to massive deforestation and the brink of extinction for entire species (think sloths and red pandas, to name just a few). Factory waste also creates ocean dead zones, which pretty much kill off entire marine life ecosystems, as is the case of 8,500 square feet of the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River (full of animal waste and toxins) lets out.
“The positive environmental effects are clear: It is more energy efficient to eat plants than to feed plants to animals and then eat the animals,” says Jessica Green, an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University. “Not only is eating meat resource-intensive — in terms of the grain and water required — but it also produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change.” If we keep up at the current rate, scientists predict that greenhouse gas emissions will increase by 80% by 2050. And all of that doesn’t even take into account the sheer fact that land being used to grow crops to feed animals is land that’s not being used to help feed people. “As developing nations get wealthier, they eat more meat,” Green adds. “The planet cannot support 7.6 billion carnivores.”
Beef is single-handedly the biggest culprit, with researchers from Bard College, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Yale University finding that it uses 28 times more land per calorie consumed, and 11 times more water, than other livestock categories. The production of poultry, pork, milk, and cheese falls somewhere in the middle, while the lowest impact comes from — you guessed it — food sources like nuts, beans, fish, and eggs. To combat the dependence on beef when it comes to the Western diet, the key is to get creative. In November, The Guardian published an article titled "The Seven Megatrends That Could Beat Global Warming," voting meat and dairy alternative products as number one. Plant-based meat, a growing category of high-tech, healthy vegan substitutes that taste, smell, and even bleed like the real thing, have a tiny environmental footprint. The excitement around the niche industry recently led entrepreneur Richard Branson to say he believes that, "In 30 years or so, we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be lab- or plant-based, taste the same, and also be much healthier for everyone."
Economically speaking, the financial benefits of more people taking the veggie plunge would be enormous. In a study done last year at the University of Oxford, which considered the global effects of moving towards plant-based eating, researchers concluded that positive changes could save up to $1,000 billion annually on healthcare and lost working days, with $570 billion being saved as a result of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Notably, out of all 195 countries, it was the United States that would be set to save the most by cutting out the steaks, burgers, and hot dogs. That’s $250 billion in healthcare costs annually (more than the entire European Union and China combined).
That’s all to say, the positive effects of a plant-based diet are immense. The key is to be realistic. If you don’t want to adopt a full-on celebrity-level regimen of juicing, blending, and wheatgrassing, that’s totally fine. As Green points out, not everyone has regular access to fruits and veggies or the resources to buy them. Even just substituting one or two meat meals per week with plant-based options is enough to make a big impact on your health and the well-being of the planet. So is simply working in some almond milk in place of cow’s milk, or trying a new juice in the morning in lieu of that sausage and egg sandwich.