There are many reasons to consider and adopt, exclusively or in-part, a plant based diet. Foremost among the reasons may be health benefits, both short-term (energy levels, athletic performance, brain function, gastrointestinal comfort and health) and long-term (decreased heart disease, stroke and cancer risk, increase in quality years of living). However, these health benefits are maybe the most controversial – and many sources conflict – aspect of plant based foods. Although I believe, and in a future article may write about, that the majority of basic research reaches conclusions that show a plant based diet to be favorable for short- and long-term human health, it is a complicated issue and one that we will completely avoid for this article.
The fact is, even excluding health benefits, there are many reasons to increase the plant-based component of your diet.
Today I will go over three of the (non-health) reasons to consider increasing the plant based component of your diet:
-Resource Use and Efficiency
What is a plant based diet?
A plant based diet is simply one where you eat foods that are made from plants. All of us have a component of our diet that is plant based – for someone that almost exclusively eats chicken breasts and eggs, that component will be very small; for a strict vegan, the plant-based component will theoretically be 100%. A plant based diet includes more than you might think – a huge variety of grains, greens, beans, berries, shrooms, seeds, nuts, and all other fruits, vegetables, juices. “All” that a plant based diet excludes is meat, dairy and eggs. A plant based diet will generally lead to eating more ‘whole-foods’ (minimally processed, in their natural form) and less processed foods, but processed foods are not necessarily excluded. Eating only Oreo cookies and Pringles would pretty much defeat the purpose of a plant based diet, but most of the stuff in your pantry is actually going to be classified as plant based.
My diet is almost exclusively plant based. The only exception is that I regularly eat eggs. As part of 2 or 3 meals per day. And sometimes in my coffee. (http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-egg-coffee/) I try not to be a pain in the ass about it, and if you decide to eat a plant based diet, you don’t need to feel overly restricted and you don’t need to be a picky little shit when you go over to your friend’s house or out to eat. I’m what you might call a ‘free-gan’ – a mostly vegan, but more than willing and happy to eat dairy or meat when they’re free. You can come up with your own strictness or degree of adherence to a plant-based diet. Some people find that they can go 100% plant-based, some still want to eat eggs or drink milk, some are okay with eating meat when they are having dinner with friends, some just try to eat a few meals per week that are entirely plant based.
Some of my favorite plant-based foods and, excluding eggs, probably 90% of my diet:
Rice, oats, cous cous, quinoa, dried fruit like raisins and cranberries, spinach, kale, oranges, grapefruit, bananas, coconut oil, olive oil, coffee, peanut butter, almond milk, raw almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, plant based protein powder, plant based sports bars (like PROBAR http://theprobar.com/#1), frozen fruit, humus, beans, onions, mushrooms, frozen vegetables, Ezekiel bread, chia seed, fig bars, pancakes, sweet potatoes, and lots of spices. Snack on any of the above on their own, or make them into sandwiches, stews, soups, smoothies, breakfast cereals, huge salads, pastas, granolas, trail mixes, chilis and vegetable roasts.
Benefits (besides health) of a plant-based diet:
Some people believe that they absolutely love bacon, or chocolate milk, or nacho cheese, or whatever it is that they are fixated on, and they ‘could not live without it’. I'd be willing to bet, however, no matter how much you think you absolutely love love love your grilled burgers, that you will not crave them if you start a plant based diet. You just won’t. You will find plenty of plant based foods to eat that you will truly enjoy, and your gut microbiome will actually change to desire, crave and thrive on those newly introduced plant based foods. You influence your microbiome through what you eat, and your gut microbiome influences what you crave, so eating a plant based diet is actually self-reinforcing and will be natural and satisfying once you get started.
So you won’t be walking around with the shakes because of a wicked craving for a Philly cheese steak. But what is going to be so interesting about plant-based food? Well, just as you won’t crave cheese steak because of your microbiome, you will actually start to enjoy whole, plant-based foods more because of your changing microbiome.
You may actually find yourself, as have many people that switch to a more plant-based diet, experiencing a renewed interest and passion for food. You will find yourself exposed to a huge variety of foods that you may not have previously experienced. Most vegetarians, vegans, and plant-based food advocates eat really awesome food. Don’t bother with the ‘faux’ foods like tofu hot dogs or soy-protein salami – there is a huge universe of truly excellent and interesting plant based foods out there waiting to be rediscovered by you. Grains such as barley, cous cous, quinoa, lentils (actually a ‘pulse’, not a grain), millet, oats, spelt, buckwheat. Greens such as arugula and kale. Sprouted, multi-grain breads. Fats like coconut oil, almond butter, avocado. Beans like Cuban frijoles negros, Indian chana masala, freshly made chickpea or great northern bean humus. Plant-based food is seriously awesome. Your plate will be colorful and can have a multitude of bright, lively flavors. You will automatically include grains, vegetables, fruits and fats throughout your day. Real plant based food looks good, tastes great and will keep you full and satisfied. Guaranteed that, if you give a more plant based diet a try, you will revitalize your relationship with food and will find yourself eating much more interesting food and feeling more satisfied with your meals and food choices.
In addition to some of the examples mentioned above of great plant based foods to try out, there are the spices that really make plant based food come to life. Spices are kind of required in order to make plant-based food taste like anything. This makes you a better cook. And since plant based foods readily accept and are complemented by spices, you are able to prepare your dish in any cuisine you desire. For example, rice:
-American (like your Grandma would make it) Rice - excessive salt, plenty of butter or other some other kind of fat
-American (modern foodie) Rice- sea salt, rosemary, lemon, olive oil
-Indian Rice- salt, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin
-Mexican Rice- salt, garlic, cayenne, chili, cumin
Plant based foods are cheap. Way cheap. Let’s compare some foods on a per calorie basis (this is probably not a healthy way to choose what to eat, because refined sugars are usually cheapest, but it is a useful metric to compare whole plant based foods to whole non plant based foods).
So those are some plant based foods that are cheap. “Eating those foods may be fine with you, Luke, but maybe I want to eat a real meal! What if I want a real dish or plate of food, with a variety of tastes and textures and food groups?” Well, combine a grain, a green (vegetable or leafy green) and a bean and you’ve got yourself a nutritionally sound, filling and ridiculously cheap meal. Or make soup. Here’s another comparison:
Google ‘plant based budget’, and you will find many websites that go in depth on how you can achieve a whole, plant based diet on a budget at or below what you currently spend on groceries.
Finally, I believe, as do many respected scientists and organizations, that the most significant cost-savings of a plant based diet show up in health care costs and opportunity/productivity costs, but since I said I would not go in to health benefits, that discussion is outside the breadth of this article. If you’re interested, here are a few of many peer-reviewed articles that are available on the topic:
Plant based foods are the base of the food chain (on a macroscopic scale). Eating foods from the bottom of the food chain provides several benefits, most of them stemming from the thermodynamic efficiency of trophic levels (levels of the food chain).
A cow eats a pile of grains – oats, corn, etc. You could have eaten those oats and corn, collecting nearly all of the biologically available caloric content from those foods. Instead the cow is eating them, wasting a percentage of the food energy as heat, using some to grow support structures (bones, tendons, etc) and using a percentage to grow the meat and fat that we will later eat.
“Well, Luke, what’s wrong with that? I don’t need all of the calories anyway – it’s not like I’m short on caloric intake – let the cow have the extra calories!”
The problem is the inputs that were used to grow the oats and corn, including diesel fuel, synthetic fertilizer, soil resources and water. These are all non-renewable resources, at least on our human time scale. Soil that is depleted of nutrients and grain structure will take hundreds, thousands or even millions of years to regain its fertility. Irrigation water is often drawn from aquifers (underground rock formations) that take the time duration of several human lives to be recharged. You are probably already familiar with the non-renewable nature of petroleum products such as diesel fuel and synthetic fertilizer.
Because of the thermodynamic efficiency I mentioned earlier (a cow or chicken or pig or turkey or salmon does not convert every calorie it eats into an edible food calorie), meat (and dairy and egg) production require more of these inputs per food calorie produced. More non-renewable resources must be used, more land must be farmed, and more pesticides and immunizations and antibiotics must be applied in order to produce a non-plant based calorie compared to producing a plant based calorie.
What kind of scale are we talking about? How much more efficient is a plant based diet, compared to a meat/dairy/egg based diet?
Here is a research article (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full) that finds it requires 2.2 kcal of fossil energy (i.e. petroleum) to produce 1 kcal of plant protein. That is, on average, 11x more efficient than meat production. Even accounting for the greater biological value of meat protein (approximately 1.4x greater than plant protein), plant protein is still 7-8x more fossil fuel efficient than meat protein.
-1 kcal Plant Protein requires 2.2 kcal fossil energy
-1 kcal Turkey Protein requires 10 kcal fossil energy
-1 kcal Dairy (Milk) Protein requires 14 kcal fossil energy
-1 kcal Swine Protein requires 14 kcal fossil energy
-1 kcal Egg Protein requires 40 kcal fossil energy
-1 kcal Cattle Protein requires 57 kcal fossil energy
Corresponding to the increase in required fossil energy to produce non-plant foods (vs plant foods) is an increase in land, pesticide, fertilizer, antibiotic and water use.
Much evidence points towards the health benefits of a plant based diet. It is still possible, however, to have a reasonable and scientific debate on the health benefit superiority of a plant based diet. When it comes to the efficiency and responsibility of land and non-renewable resource use, however, the scientific community is in near unanimous agreement as to the superiority of a plant based diet. Here are a few research articles that address the topic of resource use and efficiency:
So there it is – some thoughts on the variety, cost and resource efficiency of a plant based diet. There are many advantages to be had, without even going into the nutrition and health benefits of a plant based diet. I know many people are resistant to changing what they eat and can’t imagine swapping a turkey sandwich for some sweet potatoes and quinoa. But seriously, check out how great this stuff is - I think most everyone would really enjoy this plate lunch of plant based foods:
It’s not very hard to cook and shop for plant based foods, and I really do believe that you will love having an increased plant based component to your diet if you are willing to give it a go. You don’t need to go crazy and pour your milk down the drain and start eating kale chips and chia seed granola. Even doing lunches plant-based, or having your snacks be plant-based (www.theprobar.com), or doing a couple plant-based dinners per week can make a real difference, you can reap many of the above benefits and you will experience a revitalized relationship with awesome plant based foods.
As always, thanks for reading!