A plant-based diet is a diet consisting mostly or entirely of plant-based foods. Plant-based diets encompass a wide range of dietary patterns that contain low amounts of animal products and high amounts of plant products such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. They do not need to be vegan or vegetarian but are defined in terms of low frequency of animal food consumption.
T. Colin Campbell claims responsibility for coining the term "plant-based diet" to help present his research on diet at the National Institutes of Health in 1980. He defined it as "a low fat, high fibre, vegetable-based diet that focused on health and not ethics".
Ellen Jaffe Jones wrote about the origins of the term in a 2011 interview:
"I taught cooking classes for the national non-profit, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and during that time, the phrase 'plant-based diet' came to be used as a euphemism for vegan eating, or "the 'v' word. It was developed to take the emphasis off the word 'vegan', because some associated it with being too extreme a position, sometimes based exclusively in animal rights versus a health rationale."
Others draw a distinction between "plant-based" and "plant-only". A "plant-based diet" may be defined as "consisting largely or solely of vegetables, grains, pulses, or other foods derived from plants, rather than animal products" or as the practice of consuming plant-sourced foods that are minimally processed.
As of the early 21st century, it was estimated that 4 billion people live primarily on a plant-based diet, some by choice and some because of limits caused by shortages of crops, fresh water, and energy resources.
Plant-based diets are under preliminary research to assess whether they may improve metabolic measures in health and disease, and if there are long-term effects on diabetes. Cognitive and mental effects of a plant-based diet are inconclusive.
When the focus was whole foods, an improvement of diabetes biomarkers occurred, including reduced obesity. In diabetic people, plant-based diets were also associated with improved emotional and physical well-being, relief of depression, higher quality of life, and better general health.
Plant-based diets are associated with a decrease in cancer risk. For example, a healthy plant-based diet with very low meat intake is associated with lower breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer risk. However, there may be no improvement by avoiding meat completely.
Plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk for prostate cancer. Switching to a plant-based diet shows favorable results for cancer outcomes in men with prostate cancer. Especially vegan diets consistently show favorable associations with prostate cancer risk and outcomes.
The available literature suggests that a vegetarian/vegan diet is effective in promoting a diverse ecosystem of beneficial bacteria to support both human gut microbiome and overall health. While epidemiological studies show a correlation between gut microbiome and cardio-metabolic health, so far the no direct mechanism of action has been found.
Plant-based diet patterns enrich a gut microbiome that yields a better response from immune checkpoint inhibitors. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are used in cancer therapy.
A vegan diet has beneficial effects on gut microbiome by increased abundance of Bacteroidetes on the phylum level and a higher abundance of Prevotella.
The Food and Agriculture Organization defined a sustainable diet as one with "low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security, and to healthy life for present and future generations" and one that is affordable for all while optimizing both natural and human resources. A sustainable diet can be measured by its level of nutritional adequacy, environmental sustainability, cultural acceptability and affordability. Environmental sustainability can be measured by indicators of efficiency and environmental protection. Efficiency measures the ratio of inputs and outputs required to produce a given level of foods. Input energy refers to processing, transporting, storing and serving food, compared with the output of physical human energy. Conversely, environmental protection refers to the level of preservation of ecological systems.
Plant-based diets can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of land, water, and fertilizers used for agriculture. As a significant percentage of crops around the world are used to feed livestock rather than humans, evidence shows that increasing the practice of a plant-based diet may contribute toward minimizing climate change and biodiversity loss. While soy cultivation is a "major driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin", the vast majority of soy crops are used for livestock consumption rather than human consumption. Adopting plant-based diets could also reduce the number of animals raised and killed for food on factory farms.
Research from 2019 on various diet patterns found that plant-based diet adherence yielded greater environmental benefit when compared to diet patterns higher in animal-sourced foods. Of the six mutually-exclusive diets; individuals adhering to vegan, vegetarian and pescetarian diets had reduced dietary-carbon footprints when compared to typical omnivorous diets, while those who were adhering to paleolithic and ketogenic diets had elevated dietary-carbon emissions due to their heavy incorporation of various animal sourced foods.
A 2020 study found that the climate change mitigation effects of shifting worldwide food production and consumption to plant-based diets, which are mainly composed of foods that require only a small fraction of the land and CO2 emissions required for meat and dairy, could offset CO2 emissions equal to those of past 9 to 16 years of fossil fuel emissions in nations that they grouped into 4 types. The researchers also provided a map of approximate regional opportunities.
According to a 2021 Chatham House report, supported by the United Nations Environment Programme, a shift to "predominantly plant-based diets" will be needed to reduce biodiversity loss and human impact on the environment. The report said that livestock has the largest environmental impact, with some 80% of all global farmland used to rear cattle, sheep and other animals used by humans for food. Moving towards plant-based diets would free up the land to allow for the restoration of ecosystems and the flourishing of biodiversity.
A 2022 study published in Nature Food found that if high-income nations switched to a plant-based diet, vast swaths of land used for animal agriculture could be allowed to return to their natural state, which in turn has the potential to pull 100 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere by the end of the century. Around 35% of all habitable land around the world is used to rear animals used by humans in food production.
Commerce of plant-based foods
In 2019, Europeans consumed 40% of the world total of plant-based meat alternatives out of concern for health, food security, and animal welfare. During 2019, the total retail market for plant-based foods in the U.S. was $4.5 billion, growing at 31% over the previous two years, compared to 4% for the entire retail food market. Growth of plant-based food consumption in the U.S. occurred among flexitarian consumers seeking alternative protein sources to meat, fortification with micronutrients, whole grains, and dietary fiber ingredients, meat flavor and comfort food innovations, and "clean" food product labels. In 2019, the European Union launched a program called "Smart Protein" to reuse large-scale, plant-based residues such as pasta, bread, and yeast byproducts together with whole grains, as new high protein, flavorful substitutes for meat, seafood, and dairy products.
In Europe, consumption of plant-based meat substitutes made up 40% of the world market in 2019 and was forecast to grow by 60% through 2025, due mainly to concerns for health, food security, and animal welfare.
In the U.S. during 2019, the retail market for plant-based foods grew eight times faster than the general retail food market.
The examples and perspective in this section may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (June 2021)
Some public health organisations advocate a plant-based diet due to its low ecological footprint. These include the Swedish Food Agency in its dietary guideline and a group of Lancet researchers who propose a planetary health diet. Vegan climate activist Greta Thunberg also called for more plant-based food production and consumption worldwide. A 2022 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Council On Energy, Environment and Water included protecting animal welfare and adopting plant based diets on a list of recommendations to help mitigate the ecological and social crises bringing the world to a "boiling point".
Limitations on labeling plant-based food
The European Parliament Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development proposed prohibiting meat and dairy names for plant-based alternatives (such as 'vegetarian sausage' and 'soy schnitzel'), as these were allegedly 'confusing' in May 2019. On 8 October 2020, a group of NGOs alongside IKEA co-signed a letter to Members of the European Parliament asking to vote down the proposal. One of the NGOs, ProVeg International, launched a petition against the ban which attracted over 150,000 signatures by 15 October 2020. On 23 October 2020, the European Parliament voted against the 'veggie burger ban' for meat replacement names, but did pass a restriction on plant-based dairy alternative names, so that 'yogurt-style' or 'cheese-alternative' could be prohibited in the future, in addition to the already-banned names including 'almond milk' and 'vegan cheese'.
Several states in the United States, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota have either attempted to ban or outright banned the use of terms such as "meat", "sausage", "beef", and "milk" on the labels of plant-based alternatives to meat products.
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A plant-based diet consists of all minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices and excludes all animal products, including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.
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The term “plant-based diets” encompasses a wide range of dietary patterns that contain lower amounts of animal products and higher amounts of plant products such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds...
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Contrary to popular belief, plant-based diets do not have to be vegan or vegetarian.
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Plant-based or plant-forward eating patterns focus on foods primarily from plants. This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy.
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Plant-based diets, defined in terms of low frequency of animal food consumption, have been increasingly recommended for their health benefits.
- Hemler, Elena C.; Hu, Frank B. (20 March 2019). "Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: All Plant Foods Are Not Created Equal". Current Atherosclerosis Reports. 21 (5): 18. doi:10.1007/s11883-019-0779-5. ISSN 1534-6242.
Many previous studies have defined plant-based diets by the complete exclusion of meat or animal products, while others have accounted for plant-based diets including moderate amounts of animal-source foods.
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