We live in a meat and dairy-rich nation, but an ever-increasing body of research is now suggesting that if we want to live longer, happier lives, cutting down on our consumption of animal products is a must. So what’s the deal with plant-based diets anyway and what does this all mean for you?
Once the domain of hippies and health nuts, the plant-based diet is slowly making its way into mainstream society. While vegan and vegetarian diets are common and widely accepted, there is still a significant amount of confusion around what it actually means to follow a plant-based diet. Plant-based expert, owner of Auckland cafe Greenleaf Organics, and author of plant-based cookbook, GLO, Sarah Tanner explains that a plant-based diet comes down to simple, whole nutrition. “Plant-based is basically an abundant way of nutrition, but without any products from animals,” she says. “The reason I often say ‘whole food plant-based’ is because in this diet there is very little, or no, processed food, zero refined sugars and few vegetable oils.”
While a plant-based diet is in essence a vegan diet, Sarah says that this way of eating sets itself apart because it advocates for options that are genuinely healthy and bursting with goodness. “I’ve met a lot of super-unhealthy vegans that just live on hot chips and processed foods,” she explains.
If you’re smart about your plant-based eating, you actually shouldn’t need to supplement. Usually it’s people who are on diets rich in refined foods who need to take a lot of supplements. If anything, being plant-based, you’re actually more nutritionally balanced.
“Just because it doesn’t have animal products in it, doesn’t mean it’s healthy and I think that’s a trap that people fall into. People freak out and say ‘what am I going to eat now?’ and they end up going for packaged rubbish.”
Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, minerals and salts are all part of a balanced plant-based diet and create a good base for a healthy lifestyle.
Busting the Myth
Any diet that differs from the norm tends to have a lot of uncertainty surrounding it and Sarah explains that the most common question she receives is: “how do you get your vital nutrients without animal products?” Nutrients like iron, calcium and protein are all heavily derived from animal products within the Western diet and many people find it difficult to understand how a person could actually be healthy without meat and dairy. While it is now common for people to take supplements to make up for the shortfall in their diet, Sarah says if you are eating a genuinely balanced plant-based diet, your body will naturally get everything that it needs.
“Since being plant-based myself, I often look back on when I wasn’t, and supplementing or not, I was worse off,” she explains. “If you’re smart about your plant-based eating, you actually shouldn’t need to supplement. Usually it’s people who are on diets rich in refined foods who need to take a lot of supplements. If anything, being plant-based, you’re actually more nutritionally balanced. We only need 10 percent protein to function at an optimum level, even professional athletes. And if you ate oats all day, (not that I recommend that, but just to prove the point) you would reach your quota.”
It was the most comprehensive nutritional study of all time, and when it was released in 2005, The China Diet gave scientific weight to theories that nutritional experts had been working on for years. Hailed as one of the most important nutritional books ever written, the study confirmed that there is a clear and traceable link between the consumption of animal products and the development of chronic illnesses. Animal products like beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese and milk were all at fault, and new light was shed on foods that were commonly considered to be healthy staples of the Western diet. Conducted by nutritional researcher T. Colin Campbell and his team at Cornell, in partnership with teams in China and England, the study found that diets rich in animal protein increase a person’s risk of developing chronic illnesses such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer and bowel cancer.
The book was based on findings from the team’s 20-year study that saw researchers examine mortality rates from cancer and other chronic diseases in 65 rural Chinese counties. The study compared the mortality rates of each rural Chinese county and found that groups of people who ate a diet heavy in animal-based foods were significantly more likely to suffer from many of the chronic illnesses that are common in Western society today. In comparison, those who ate a primarily plant-based diet were far less likely to suffer from these types of diseases and, among plant-based communities, these diseases were almost non-existent. More recent studies have even suggested that cancer death risk is four times higher among people who eat a diet that is high in animal protein. The findings were clear: the key to a long, healthy life is a diet that is rich in plant-based foods.
Drawing the line
A keen advocate for the whole food plant-based diet, Sarah explains that her approach to nutrition wasn’t always quite so balanced. It wasn’t until she became sick a few years ago that she realised something needed to change and she needed to start taking notice of what she put into her body. “I had a really bad bout of shingles and that really opened up a can of worms,” she explains.
“Smoothies were my gateway [into healthy eating] and from there, there was a flood of information and I wanted to know more about how foods reacted to my body. Initially it was all about building my immune system naturally because shingles is an attack on the immune system and I didn’t want to be in that position.” Sarah soon found herself eating more and more organic food, before making the decision to become vegetarian and, finally, she transitioned into a full whole food plant-based diet.
Since adopting a plant-based diet, Sarah has seen incredible improvements in her health, a restoration of her immune system and even credits her healthy lifestyle for helping to cure her Polycystic Ovary Syndrome that she suffered from for many years. “Intrinsically I think you know when you eat something [that doesn’t agree with your body] and even when I did eat meat and dairy, I never really felt that great about it. The more I learned about it and experienced it myself, the more I have become passionate about it. I guess I was kind of asleep and once you wake up you can’t go back.”
Sarah isn’t alone in her thinking, with celebrities like Alicia Keys advocating heavily for the health benefits of her dairy-free diet and singer Ariana Grande promoting her whole food plant-based diet as her secret to a happier, fuller life.
While the health benefits of a plant-based diet are clear, cutting down on your intake of animal products goes much further than yourself. In 2008 Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, spoke out about the meat and dairy industries, urging consumers to cut down on their intake of animal products as a way of tackling climate change. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation found that nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions came from meat production and Pachauri called for governments to work to cut meat consumption by 60 percent by 2020. “In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity,” Pachauri told The Observer. “Give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there.” While the advice was controversial and poorly received by the meat industry, it’s clear that something has to change if we are to have any hope of preserving our climate and our health.