Eating more plants (and less meat and dairy) can be beneficial for your health and the planet – and it’s easier than you might think.
Last September, a German research team published an article with a compelling title: The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review. The researchers had noticed an “increasing interest in plant-based eating patterns” and wanted to get to the meat of the matter, so to speak — parse studies to evaluate which of the many purported benefits of plant-based eating may be for real.
What, exactly, is a plant-based diet? The term is everywhere suddenly, from packages of faux ground beef to sticks of dairy-free butter (which look suspiciously like margarine in the emperor’s new clothes). But if you get past the marketing, the idea of going plant-based is simple and not all that new: Eat more foods that grow from the ground and less meat and dairy. Some people cut the cord on all animal-based products; others just cut back. And eating packaged, processed foods doesn’t have to be part of the deal.
Photos courtesy of Beyond Meat
The researchers in Germany looked at 32 studies and emerged with some good news for the pro-plant set. There is “robust evidence,” they write, that plant-based diets have beneficial effects on weight, metabolism and inflammation, at least in the short term (no study tracked participants for more than two years). Another overseas study, this one from Denmark, found that a high-protein, plant-based meal was more satiating and ultimately resulted in subjects eating up to 13% fewer calories compared to a high-protein meat meal.
Photo courtesy of Beyond Meat
“I think it’s so important to just be having the conversation about reducing consumption of meat,” says Rachael Hoover Lekic, director of sustainability at Café Patachou®, an Indianapolis restaurant that serves many meat-free options. “Especially people who are accustomed to a Western diet, we have to start talking about what we need to do to change the way we produce and consume food. How we’re doing it now has really negative impacts for not just human health but also environmental health.”
And processing beef has a higher greenhouse gas impact than processing other high-protein foods, such as beans or nuts. Slaughtering enough beef to deliver 100 grams of protein amounts to a greenhouse gas impact that’s, on average, almost seven times higher than that of deshelling and roasting enough peanuts to provide the same amount of protein, found a study published in 2018.
Of course, asking every American to give up meat completely isn’t realistic. “No one is going to wake up tomorrow and be like, ‘I’m only going to buy directly from a farm; I’m not going to buy this package of plastic; and I’m never going to eat meat again,’” Hoover Lekic says. “I feel like it has to be incremental.”
But even making a small shift can have a massive impact. In 2017, Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel teamed with a researcher at the University of Minnesota to crunch some numbers on how eating meat affects the environment and found that “If you trade in steak for beans once a week for a year, you will keep the equivalent of 331 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere.” Haspel explains this impact as the same as saving 38 gallons of gas from being burned. She adds, “If you plant a tree (which I strongly suggest you do), it will remove that 331 kg in, oh, 83 years.”
This month, try switching one or two of your meat-based meals each week to plant-based, centered on high-protein options such as beans, chickpeas, quinoa and edamame.
Photo courtesy of Beyond Meat
Thinking of steak or burgers? Try cauliflower steaks, portobello mushroom burgers or marinated grilled tofu. Craving comfort food? Make a creamy soup without dairy products by blending in small pieces of bread (a trick borrowed from traditional gazpacho) or using coconut milk.
Sometimes the swap could be something unexpected. Drive editorial director Megan Bungeroth swears by a vegetarian Reuben that trades corned beef for ripe avocado. “Use your favorite fresh bread (I like sourdough), sauerkraut, Russian dressing and a sharp cheese, like aged cheddar, Gruyère or cashew cheese for a vegan option, and you won’t miss the corned beef a bit,” she says.
If you’re not sure where to start, try one of the following recipes from two cookbooks coming out next month.
About the author
Marissa Conrad is a writer and editor living in New York. Conrad is the managing editor of Drive, and she covers topics ranging from food to tech to sustainability for a variety of national and local publications.