Eating more plant-based food: how healthy is that?
More and more people are flexitarian, vegetarian or even vegan. And the range of vegetable substitutes in the supermarket is rapidly expanding. You could say that plant-based eating is on the rise – but why really? There are many myths about plant-based food. For example, some people claim that you automatically eat healthier when you cut some animal products from your diet. Conversely, you sometimes hear that eating plant-based foods is a very bad idea because it is guaranteed to lead to shortages. What is the truth? Is it worthwhile to eat plant-based food more often, or actually not? We put it together in this blog!
What is Plant Food?
To start at the beginning: what are we actually talking about? You can roughly divide food into two categories, animal and vegetable. As the name implies, animal products are foods for which we need animals in production. In contrast, vegetable products are purely from plants.
Animal products are of course meat and fish, but also eggs and dairy. In addition, there are a few ‘instinkers’, such as honey, which is produced by bees, and animal rennets.
Vegetable products are other categories, such as grains, potatoes, vegetables and fruit, legumes, soy, nuts, and seeds.
More plant-based food: different degrees
Many people immediately think of an extremely vegan diet that consists of 90% fruit and vegetables when eating more plant-based. That’s not what we want to talk about in this blog.
Eating more plant-based foods is possible in all gradations. At one end of the scale, you have people who eat vegan and therefore only use plant-based products. Then there are vegetarians, who use eggs and dairy, but not meat and fish. Flexitarians eat everything but use meat and fishless often: for example, they eat vegetarian for half the week.
This blog is not only about an exclusively plant-based diet but also about those steps in the middle. Because even if you opt for vegetable products a little more often, this can already have a major effect on your health. Even if you have chicken on the menu again the next day!
Benefits of plant-based food
To start with the good news: what are the benefits of eating more plant-based foods? Unfortunately, it is not the key to eternal life, as some enthusiasts seem to claim. There are actually no miracle cures, and there is also none.
However, that does not mean that there are no advantages to including some more vegetable products in your diet. We list the most important ones below!
1. Less saturated fats
Animal products are the main source of saturated fats. Many people consume far too much of these fats, with all kinds of problematic consequences.
For example, a surplus of saturated fats is held responsible for a high risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and strokes. Keep in mind that cardiovascular disease in particular is one of the leading causes of death in the Western world, and you understand that this is a serious problem!
The recommended maximum of saturated fat is 10% of your daily calorie intake. So if you eat 2000 kcal per day, 200 kcal of that may come from saturated fat. That’s about 22 grams of saturated fat.
100 grams of steak with a knob of butter already contains 16 grams of saturated fat. And a container with 150 ml full quark already delivers 9 grams. You see that with animal products you very quickly exceed your maximum amount. Vegetable products, on the other hand, provide hardly any saturated fat and therefore help you to keep your heart and blood vessels healthy.
2. More fiber
Vegetable food is also rich in fiber. This is a specific type of indigestible carbohydrates, which is particularly healthy for your intestines. Fiber keeps your digestion going and prevents all kinds of waste from accumulating in your intestines. In doing so, they also ensure, for example, that you absorb healthy nutrients better.
Fiber is not in animal food. A diet that is rich in animal products is therefore also a low-fiber diet. And that is inconvenient because many people are nowhere near their recommended amount of 30 to 40 grams of fiber per day.
By eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, you can give your fiber intake a big boost. This will automatically mean that you include more vegetable products in your menu.
3. Less risk of cancer
Animal products, especially meat, are a risk factor when it comes to cancer. Very specifically, it mainly concerns red meat and processed meat. Unfortunately, beef, pork, salami, and other types of sausage are the most commonly eaten types of meat in the World.
That does not mean that you are guaranteed to get colon cancer if you eat a steak every now and then. But if you consistently eat more than 500 grams of meat per week – and most people are well over that – then you increase the chance!
By eating meat less often, and therefore choosing plant-based alternatives more often, you also reduce the risk of this common cause of death.
4. More phytonutrients
A fourth health benefit has to do with the so-called phytonutrients. These are active substances that occur in plants, and that is therefore only in plant food. Although phytonutrients have been little discussed for years, more recent scientific research indicates that they are a lot healthier than previously thought.
It is not yet entirely clear what phytonutrients do. In any case, they have an antioxidant effect. In doing so, they reduce chronic inflammation, which is a risk factor in the development of cancer, among other things. They also help your body to remove harmful substances better.
It is also suspected that phytonutrients are one of the reasons that fruits and vegetables are so extremely healthy. Studies show that people are much healthier if they eat more fruit and vegetables, but it is not yet entirely clear what the reason for this is. The vitamins alone do not seem to be enough of an explanation. There is a good chance that phytonutrients have a lot to do with it!
5. Better for the environment
Then there is a fourth benefit, which has less to do with your individual health and a lot more with the rest of the world. We live in a time when excessive CO2 emissions lead to major changes in the climate – something that we are already noticing the consequences in the Netherlands! And unfortunately, the consumption of meat, in particular, is responsible for a significant part of those emissions.
Meat production also has other drawbacks. For example, it takes an awful lot of water to grow a cow or pig to adulthood. And to grow animal feed, huge areas are deforested, especially in tropical countries. For a piece of meat, you need multiple of the proteins as animal feed. It is a lot more efficient if people eat proteins directly in their vegetable form…
If you want to eat meat that is as climate-friendly as possible, fish is the best option. But nuts, legumes, and dairy products (except cheese) are many times more beneficial to the environment as protein sources!
Disadvantages plant-based food
By eating more plant-based foods, you can therefore prevent cardiovascular disease, strokes, and cancers. In addition, you help to prevent the climate from deteriorating further. However, that does not mean that there are no disadvantages to plant-based food at all.
This is actually about one major drawback: the risk of possible shortages. There are a number of nutrients that most people get mainly from animal products. The most important are iron, calcium, and vitamins B1, B2, and B12. However, certain other minerals are also abundant in animal foods, such as zinc.
That certainly does not mean that you will automatically run into a shortage of these substances if you replace your chicken fillet with tofu more often. Certainly if you still regularly eat animal foods, you hardly run any risk. As said, most people eat a lot more meat than they need. If you eat vegetarian for half of the week, for example, you do not have to worry about a B12 deficiency.
But are you going to eat completely vegetarian or even vegan? Then it is important that you pay attention a little! If you eat plant-based by simply cutting out all animal products and scooping up a little more rice or pasta, then things go wrong.
When you eat less animal food, you need other products to supplement the ‘animal’ nutrients. You can go a long way by adding soy and legumes to the menu more often. That handful of nuts a day is also a really good idea. Eating completely plant-based foods is fine in a healthy way, but it is important to educate yourself a little when you start.
Is plant-based food healthy?
So if we summarize everything: is plant-based food healthy? In short, the answer is yes. Almost everyone in the Netherlands can make their diet a lot healthier in one fell swoop by using less animal products and choosing a bit more vegetables. This way you reduce your intake of saturated fat and improve your intake of fiber and phytonutrients – without the risk of deficiencies.
So don’t hesitate to choose soy, nuts, and legumes more often instead of meat and eggs. Or replace the cheese on your bread with hummus with some cucumber slices!
Do you want to eliminate animal products completely from your diet? In general, this also mainly yields advantages, but with the caveat that you do it wisely. Make sure you know what deficiencies you could get and how to prevent them. Then vegan or vegetarian food is also a great healthy choice.