It gives me great pleasure to introduce another very bright student I had the privilege to teach at the University of Georgia. Sara Yang graduated from UGA, went on to work in the food industry, and is now doing graduate work in ways to improve the general acceptability of plant-based diets to a wider range of the population. Although my diet is primarily designed around meat and other animal products, I acknowledge the benefits of rational plant-based diets such as the one described by Sara below and the earlier one presented by Jake Edmiston in May.
When I meet people outside of my field and tell them that I’m a food scientist, one of the most common questions I get is, “how can I eat healthier?” I usually respond first with a disclaimer that I am neither a nutritionist or a dietician, and that in fact I think those are very difficult jobs, because what is “good” or “bad” for us is constantly changing. My personal belief is that a healthy diet can include all things in moderation. However, there are some guidelines that have withstood the test of time. For example: eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is generally good. Limiting salt, sugar, and fat intake in excess of what your body requires is probably a smart idea. Plenty of research has shown that a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in salt, sugar, and fat decreases the risk of a myriad of health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and cancer.
Although we may have slightly different opinions on what real food is or should be, I have to agree with Michael Pollan when he famously summed up how to eat in just seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables can provide us with vitamins and fiber, and seeds, nuts, and legumes can be good sources of protein and healthy fats. Whole foods from plant sources are also generally nutrient dense, providing a generous dose of nutrients per calorie.
For these main reasons, I believe that plant-based foods can and should be the foundation of a healthy diet. From there, individuals can choose to not include any animal-based products (vegans), to include only certain animal-based products (lacto-ovo-vegetarians or pescatarians), or yes, even to eat the occasional steak or burger (part-time vegetarians like me). As long as plant-based foods remain the star of the plate most of the time, I consider all the above to be plant-based diets.
Not only is following a balanced and varied plant-based diet healthier for you (reducing the risk of certain diseases), it’s also healthier for the environment. A study published in Nature1 highlights how our dietary choices impact both human health and environmental sustainability. The study shows that Mediterranean, pescatarian and vegetarian diets all reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, and mortality rates from coronary heart disease compared to conventional omnivorous diets, and in addition, these alternative plant-based diets have lower greenhouse gas emissions from food production and lower land demand.
A group of Dutch researchers conducted a comparison of the health and environmental impacts of six different dietary patterns2, and concluded that reducing the amount of animal protein consumed in a diet clearly improves the sustainability of the diet. However, the authors advised against an entirely meatless diet, first, because of the challenges associated with nutritional adequacy, but interestingly, they also argue that ecological efficiency (considering energy consumption, optimum nutrition, and land use) is apparently maximized when the diet includes a small amount of meat. Out of the six diets analyzed in this study, the authors recommended the Mediterranean diet (“lower in meat, high in fish, fruits, and vegetables, with fewer extras, and plant oils instead of animal fats”) for its optimal balance between human health and environmental sustainability.
Finally, as a sensory scientist, I cannot neglect to mention the advantages of a plant-based diet from a sensory perspective. From crisp red bell peppers and sweet ripe peaches, to creamy avocado and savory onions, to sulfurous broccoli and bitter kale, plant-based foods span a wide range of colors, textures, and flavors. Herbs and spices can further modify the flavors of our food, including trigeminal stimulation like the cooling sensation of mint, the perspiration-inducing heat of habanero peppers, or the pungency of a robust olive oil. Plant-based ingredients no doubt make our food more interesting! Certain plant-based foods are even able to enhance flavors—take a look at this joint study conducted by researchers at the University of California Davis and the Culinary Institute of America3. The findings indicate that in meat-based dishes like carne asada or beef tacos, meat can be partially substituted with mushrooms (up to 80%) without loss of overall flavor, and in fact, this substitution with mushrooms can also help mitigate sodium reduction. Incorporating more plant-based foods like vegetables and legumes into a meat-centric dish could potentially be a win for both nutrition and flavor.
In short, plant-based diets are good for you, good for the environment, and good for your palate. To begin reaping these benefits, you don’t even need to give up meat altogether. Small changes, like reducing the proportion of meat to vegetables in a given meal or observing “meatless Mondays” can make a difference. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give it a try!
1Tilman, D. and M. Clark (2014). “Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health.” Nature 515(7528): 518-522.
2van Dooren, C., et al. (2014). “Exploring dietary guidelines based on ecological and nutritional values: A comparison of six dietary patterns.” Food Policy 44: 36-46.
3Miller, A. M., et al. (2014). “Flavor-Enhancing Properties of Mushrooms in Meat-Based Dishes in Which Sodium Has Been Reduced and Meat Has Been Partially Substituted with Mushrooms.” Journal of Food Science 79(9): S1795-S1804.
Photos above were taken by Sara shortly before she consumed the featured dish.
Bio: Sara Yang is a PhD Candidate in the Food Science Graduate Group at the University of California Davis. Her research focuses on consumer attitudes and preferences regarding extra virgin olive oil, and investigating the potential of using extra virgin olive oil as a substitute for other dietary fats while maintaining overall flavor and consumer appeal. Sara is a farmers market enthusiast and part-time vegetarian.
Next week: What ever happened to the balanced diet?