Plant-Forward Diets for a Healthy, Secure Future
Written by Erin Cazel, MSN (June 2023) and Mary Purdy, MS, RDN
With “sustainable diets” creating quite the buzz these days, many are left wondering what that actually means, or quivering at the prospect of never again eating a BLT. The good news is that eco-friendly eating doesn’t require complete elimination of all animal products. Enter: “plant-forward eating.”
A large body of evidence has long demonstrated that plant-forward diets may be healthier for individuals and also promote ecological resilience. Unlike vegetarianism or veganism, plant-forward diets aren’t based on restriction (keep enjoying that strip of bacon every so often), but rather on the intentional prioritization of diverse, minimally-processed plant foods. Not only does this eating pattern protect against many diet-related diseases, but it is essential for sustainable, global food security as we adapt to climate change phenomena.
Um…Plants are really good for you
A 2020 systematic review by the USDA concluded that strong evidence associates plant-forward eating patterns with decreased risk of all-cause mortality (1). In other words, eat more whole plant foods, and potentially reduce your risk for chronic health issues! Plant-forward eating patterns encompass a wide variety of eating preferences, as well as specific diet frameworks, such as the Mediterranean and DASH dietary patterns. While not culturally applicable to all, the common thread in these patterns is the emphasis on consuming a variety of vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and unrefined plant-based oils, in particular, olive oil. Meat and dairy consumption is reduced, but not excluded, and preference given to lean and white meats, and low-fat, unsweetened dairy. The profound benefits to human health described in this systematic review should not be surprising. Plants are packed with an array of essential nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, which sustain human health, support the immune system, and decrease risk for the development of numerous chronic diseases. The more plant foods consumed – and the greater the variety – the broader the availability of these nourishing elements (1). Plant sources of proteins such as beans and legumes, in particular, are associated with numerous health benefits. A diet rich in fiber, beans and legumes can help reduce LDL cholesterol, stabilize blood glucose, and nurture a healthy gut microbiome. Beans and legumes are also rich in a variety of beneficial plant compounds that support reduced inflammation and increased antioxidant activity.
Plant-forward diets also support ecological health
In fact, a 2016 systematic review found that these same plant-forward dietary patterns beneficial for human health were also associated with fewer negative impacts on the environment (2). This is because plants require less water and energy inputs to grow and distribute than do meat (particularly beef) and dairy products. They also generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions in their production (3). The World Resources Institute states that “producing beef uses 20 times the land and emits 20 times the greenhouse gasses as producing beans, per gram of protein.” But a reduced carbon footprint is not the only ecological benefit linked with eating your greens. By consuming an increased quantity and variety of plant foods, individuals who follow plant-forward dietary patterns can help promote agricultural diversity. Large-scale monocropping, used especially to produce livestock feed, dominates industrial agricultural practices. Monocropping is associated with many negative environmental outcomes, including deforestation, soil depletion, decreased wildlife biodiversity, and increased air, water, and soil contaminants from agricultural chemicals (3). In contrast, diversified farming practices that cultivate a variety of plants, such as polyculture, companion planting, and crop rotation, regenerate organic soil matter, sequester carbon dioxide, and increase biodiversity (4). These practices also require fewer chemical inputs, which translates to less environmental pollution (4).
Ecological resilience is imperative also to ensure long-term food security through a sustainable global food supply. Future food production is limited by poor soil fertility, excessive land use and decreasing freshwater availability. (5). These natural resources are being threatened not only by industrial agricultural practices, but also by increasing extreme weather patterns around the globe (5). Diversified farming (growing a variety of crops together) buffers plants from the impact of severe climate conditions that might decimate a single crop. This is especially pertinent for developing countries, low income areas and many indigenous communities, who may tend to live in regions of the world more susceptible to drought and floods but can be an effective strategy for many farms.
Agricultural practices in line with plant-forward eating patterns augment worldwide food security. In fact, researchers highlight dietary patterns high in a variety of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and limited in meat and dairy consumption, such as the Mediterranean Diet Pattern, as a sustainable food practice for long-term global food stability (5). Beans and legumes are significantly less expensive than meat, offering additional economic value and sustainability for consumers and farmers alike (6).
But not everyone is thrilled with recommendations for reduced meat consumption. Rising rates of obesity and multiple chronic diseases are associated with high consumption of processed carbohydrates and refined sugars – foods which have been produced and consumed in greater quantities since the directive to forego red meat in the 1970s (7). Highly processed plant-based meat alternatives that have sprouted up (ie: “impossible burger”, and “beyond meat”) are often laden with high levels of sodium and additives, exacerbating negative human health outcomes. In addition, the ecological footprint of these products can be weighty, negating the environmental argument for reduced meat consumption (8). Consumer confusion is an understandable frustration in the face of this seeming contradiction, but is the result of muddied marketing, not a mistaken message. Research is clear: eating patterns that center a variety of plants are healthier for humans and the environment, and generate a clear path forward for global food security (1, 2, 3, 5).
Here are five practical ways to implement plant-forward eating patterns at home:
- Combine ground meat with veggies to reduce overall meat consumption. Think turkey spinach meatballs with Italian herbs. Or mushroom and onion hamburgers.
- Eat the rainbow. Make a goal to eat three natural colors in each meal. Purple cabbage and orange carrots are economical nutrient powerhouses that store for a long time in the fridge.
- Choose one dinner a week to highlight beans or lentils. Beans can be incorporated into salads or pastas, while pureed beans lend a creamy texture to soups. There are an increasing number of options for heat-and-eat bean and grain options available in the freezer and pantry aisles of many grocery stores for a quick weeknight dinner option.
- Try your hand at growing windowsill herbs: a teaspoon or two of fresh-snipped parsley, chives, or mint will elevate any home-prepped or store-bought meal in terms of flavor, beauty, and nutrition.
- When possible, buy grass-fed or pastured meats from smaller-scale producers who have more humane methods of raising their animals. Though this is a more expensive option compared to conventionally raised meat, these types of agricultural practices benefit the animals, environment, and humans.
Plant-forward dietary patterns can nourish individuals, communities, and the environment. With over 20,000 edible plants around the globe, we have a world of flavors to explore (9)!
- Boushey C, Ard J, Bazzano L, et al. Dietary Patterns and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review. Alexandria (VA): USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review; July 2020.
- Nelson ME, Hamm MW, Hu FB, Abrams SA, Griffin TS. Alignment of Healthy Dietary Patterns and Environmental Sustainability: A Systematic Review. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(6):1005-1025. Published 2016 Nov 15. doi:10.3945/an.116.012567
- Ritchie H, Roser M. Environmental impacts of food production. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/
environmental-impacts-of-food. Published December 2, 2022. Accessed December 7, 2022.
- Healthy Food Team. The dirt on climate change: Regenerative agriculture and health care. Health Care Without Harm. https://noharm-uscanada.org/
regenerativeagriculture. Published January 28, 2021. Accessed December 7, 2022.
- Berry EM. Sustainable Food Systems and the Mediterranean Diet. Nutrients. 2019;11(9):2229. Published 2019 Sep 16. doi:10.3390/nu11092229
- Flynn MM, Schiff AR. Economical Healthy Diets (2012): Including Lean Animal Protein Costs More Than Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 2015;10(4):467-482. Published 2015 Sep 23. doi: 10.1080/19320248.2015.1045675
- Lyon G. Plant-based diets do more harm than good: Commentary. Orlando Sentinel. https://www.orlandosentinel.
com/opinion/guest-commentary/ os-op-plant-based-diets- harmful-20200317- awevcg2v6fd47kjp43newxcg5a- story.html. Published March 17, 2020. Accessed December 7, 2022.
- Sacks K. Comparing plant-based Burger Brands. FoodPrint. https://foodprint.org/blog/ plant-based-burger-brands/. Published November 9, 2021. Accessed December 7, 2022.
- French B. Food plants international database of edible plants of the world, a free resource for all. Food Plants International database of edible plants of the world, a free resource for all | International Society for Horticultural Science. https://www.ishs.org/ishs-
article/1241_1. Published 2019. Accessed February 18, 2023.
I love how you took the science and made it inspiring! Fixing the system will require the collaboration of many, but there are simple steps we all can take.
Thank you, Elisa! You make a potent observation about taking simple steps in collaboration with others. It can be overwhelming to look at the complexities of the challenges within our food system. But we can take inspiration from the plants themselves, who put forth their seeds one season at a time. Each individual seed is small, but the collective impact over time is profound!
As a developing culinarian, I found this article to be a great introduction to plant-forward diets that I can share with my fellow students and anyone curious how to take practical steps in our diets to improve our health and be good stewards of our planet.
SO delighted to hear this, Bren. I’m happy to hear it was helpful and may inspire future fabulous plant-centric dishes.
Bren, yes! Thriving planet, healthy humans, and delicious-tasting food are not mutually exclusive! Would love to hear about the plant-forward dishes you and your fellow culinarians develop!