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TO (M)EAT OR NOT TO (M)EAT
Meat lovers: we apologize in advance for what you’re about to read.
You’ve probably taken notice of the buzz surrounding the plant-based eating craze. Whether it’s the advent of Beyond Meat products, the inclusion of various vegan options on fast food menus, or the many celebrities and food bloggers who sing the praises of the transformative lifestyle, it feels as though plant-based eating is all the rage in the world of food and health these days.
As is implied by its name, the diet typically consists of foods derived from plants, while entirely avoiding animal products.
But it’s a little more complicated than that.
GETTING TO THE ROOT
People understandably get confused between what distinguishes a plant-based diet from a vegan or vegetarian diet. After all, the three popular regimens share the common ground of being more or less anti-animal meat.
Let’s start with veganism.
For most vegans, it’s clear that their dietary choice is about more than just what they’re putting in their mouths. Typically, vegans avoid any animal-sourced products, including leather, wool, fur, and silk. For many, it’s more of an ethical approach to living than vegetarianism or plant-based.
The vegetarian diet, which is less extreme than veganism, can include dairy, eggs, and other animal byproducts, though meat is off the table. (Literally.)
Plant-based diets strictly focus on eating mostly whole foods, and are typically more flexible than veganism or vegetarianism. Hard-core plant-based devotees may choose not to eat any food with an animal origin, but others are more relaxed and will eat animal products from time to time. For the majority of plant-based consumers, the diet is not about abandoning meat entirely, it’s just about opting for veggie options more often than not.
Experts say those who aren’t ready to give up meat entirely should consider a flexitarian diet: a healthy compromise that allows dieters to eat meat but opt for plant-based protein whenever possible.
THE GROWING TREND
We could go on about the science, but we’ll spare you.
The plant-based trend has been sparked, in large part, by its representation on social media. There are more than 23 million posts on Instagram filed under #plantbased, plus Netflix food-related documentaries like Knives Over Forks or What the Health that have definitely convinced people to hop on the plant-based bandwagon.
Celebs have also inspired many to go green, including Beyoncé and Jay Z, who’ve partnered with Borge’s The Greenprint Project, which promotes plant-based diets to help the environment. The dynamic duo offered fans the chance to win free tickets to their concert in exchange for committing to a more plant-based lifestyle. (Talk about bribery!)
Product producers, restaurants and eateries are capitalizing on the trend, too, and the proof is in the stats. The number of new food and drink products in the U.S. that mention the term “plant-based” grew 268% between 2012 and 2018.
Next time you’re at a grocery store, pay close attention. There’s no doubt you’ll notice the term “plant-based” on thousands of products, from yogurt to potato chips, sausages to milks. You’ll also notice plant-based pizzerias popping up and upscale eateries serving things like tempeh-lentil chia burgers and matcha-kelp noodles. Watch out for NYC-based vegan restaurant by CHLOE, coming to Canada soon, plus the country’s first ever vegan drive-thru
Even traditional meat processors and fast food chains are picking up on the trend, serving up Beyond Meat burgers and other plant-based alternatives to classic meat and dairy dishes. And, the world’s largest plant-based restaurant chain called Copper Branch is planning to open up 50 new locations across Canada over the next few years.
THE PLANT PLAYOFF
Remember what we said before about skipping over the science? Scratch that. (We’ll keep it brief, we promise.) But instead of a lesson in botany, let’s talk biology.
In spite of its name, the cannabis plant isn’t the only natural source of cannabinoids. Along with phytocannabinoids in plants, the human body has its own internal system of naturally produced endocannabinoids. These neurotransmitters play a central role in all sorts of physiological and cognitive processes and functions, including pain-sensation, mood, and memory, fertility and pregnancy, and appetite. Some other plants that have been found to interact on the endocannabinoid system are echinacea, liverwort, black pepper, black truffles and cacao. (No wonder chocolate makes us feel so good.)
It’s this biological link between cannabinoids and human physiology that may explain CBD’s growing reputation as a wonder drug — and the growing quantity of scientific evidence that supports that reputation.
Naturally, researchers balk at labelling CBD as a medical cure-all (with good reason — that would be a huge claim to make), and yes, at the moment marketers are louder than scientists in touting its benefits — in part due to stringent regulations by the FDA that have hampered research opportunities. But more and more scientific studies are showing correlations between improved wellness and therapeutic use of CBD products. Some examples:
The plant-based phenomenon is obviously popular for a reason.
A big turning point that prodded people to eat more plant-based foods was a study published by the American Cancer Society in the mid-2000s, which established a link between eating red meat and colorectal cancer.
Ten years later, the World Health Organization declared that processed meats, like bacon and salami, do cause cancer, while other red meat likely could, too. The headlines certainly caused people to rethink their diets.
Some meats can be loaded with cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium, all of which (when consumed in large quantities) are detrimental to a person’s health. Research shows that plant-based diets can improve overall health by lowering the risk of obesity, heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes.
Not only is eating whole-foods potentially beneficial for humans, it’s also demonstrated to be highly advantageous for the environment. Producing animal products reportedly generates the majority of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, mostly due to manure-related emissions. Beef has proven to be more than 100 times more emission-intensive than legumes.
A study published last year found that the environmental pressures of the food system could increase by 90% by 2050, as a direct result of population growth and consumption of diets high in red meats and processed foods.
Research has also shown that shifting the population toward a more plant-focused lifestyle could drastically reduce the human impact on the planet, in terms of energy required, land used, greenhouse gas emissions, water waste and pollutants.
As is the case with most diets, the mainstreaming of plant-based eating has been met with controversy.
For one, the growing popularity of eating plant-based has actually inspired a shortage of popular items, like avocados and quinoa, whose prices have been spiked so high by the overwhelming demand from the Western world. Sustainable produce tends to be more expensive, which creates a barrier to accessibility and prevents portions of the population from being able to afford healthy, whole foods.
Furthermore, if not done properly, the plant-based diet lacks protein and other essential nutrients that support muscle growth, hormone balance and overall health. Lean meats, skinless poultry and fish are excellent sources of protein, whose nutritional profiles are difficult to supplement with legumes and plant-based foods.
Not to mention, while plant-based burgers and other delicacies are enjoying the spotlight, health experts say not enough data exists to demonstrate that plant-based burgers and other beef-impersonators trump eating real meat.
Though Canada’s new food guide recently changed to advise Canadians to eat less meat and more plant-based proteins, it’s unclear whether the Beyond Meat burger (which markets itself as “better for you”), and other similar alternatives, actually qualify as a healthy source of protein. Some have even compared the ingredients in plant-based meat to dog food.
The point is, even though studies have suggested the plant-based lifestyle is likely healthier for humans and the planet, there still remains a lack of data to properly prove that point. Either way, as is the case with most things, moderation is key.
If you do want to transition to plant-based eating, or if you just want to test out some healthy treats, here are a few nutritious and delicious products sure to satisfy your cravings.