What Do Health Professionals Think About Plant-Based Diets?

The question in the title, and others like it related to plant-based diets, are often being asked. So, I thought it would be useful to give some really brief answers (usually in 75 words or less) to such common questions. These answers are by no means meant to be comprehensive or definitive, of course; rather they are meant to encourage you, the reader, to think about how you would answer such questions yourself.

1. What’s the difference between a vegan and someone who eats a wholefood plant-based diet?

 

You can be a vegan without eating a wholefood plant-based diet (WFPBD).

Equally, you can eat a WFPBD without being a vegan.

It’s possible to eat a truly unhealthy diet if you’re a vegan, although it’s pretty much impossible to do so if you eat a WFPBD.

Veganism is about more than just what you eat – it’s also about moral choices regarding animals and usage of any foods/products derived from them.

2. What do health professionals think about plant-based diets?

The general agreement amongst health professionals regarding plant-based diets is one of endorsement for such diets being both nutritionally sound and a healthy choice when they are well-planned (which would, of course, include some supplementation, particularly of B12), offering health benefits for the prevention/treatment of certain diseases.

Apart from the German Society for Nutrition, the consensus is that such diets are appropriate during all life stages, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and for athletes.

3. What’s veganism?

Veganism is a way of life that seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals, whether it’s with respect to the food we eat, the clothes we wear, or for any other purpose.

In terms of diet, veganism means that all foods are plant-based, and all animal or animal-derived foods are excluded: including meat, fish, dairy and eggs and honey.

 

4. How many vegans are there in the UK today?

Without exact figures for 2019. we can look at the previous year.

In the UK (as of 2018), there was estimated 1 to be around 600,000 people aged 15 or over.

This represents a doubling between 2014 and 2016 (0.25% to 0.46%) and then another doubling between 2016 and 2018 (0.46% to 1.16%).

 

 

5. What are the four basic food groups in the vegan diet?

In general terms, the four basic food groups in the vegan diet are: legumes, grains, vegetables and fruits.

Of course, nuts, seeds and fungi are also usual components of any plant-based diet. Some nuts (Brazil nuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and peanuts) are, botanically-speaking, seeds rather than fruit, while some nuts (tree nuts like chestnuts, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts) are the plant’s fruit.

Seeds and fungi are just that – seeds and fungi.

 

6. What’s considered key to making a global step towards more plant-based eating?

The factor considered key to making a global step towards more plant-based eating is for vegan food to become normalised within society. A 2010 UN report 2 said a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change. A PNAS study 3 said a global move to a vegan diet would avert 8.1 million premature deaths per year.

7. What’s ethical veganism?

Ethical veganism can be defined as a philosophy that avoids the use of animals, not only for food, but also for anything that relies on animal products (e.g. clothes, furniture, perfumes, etc).

It also extends to occupations, entertainment, sports, etc.

Ethical veganism has a deep respect for all life, believing that we have no right to exploit animals for our own benefit, nor to treat other animals as though they have no rights.

 

8. What’s environmental veganism?

Environmental veganism can be defined as the belief that there is sufficient evidence to show that eating a plant-based diet is both more sustainable and significantly less damaging to the environment than eating an animal-based diet.

Animal-based industries are considered to be unsustainable and to play a huge part in causing environmental damage – including: greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, deforestation, and the use of water, fossil fuels, and land.

 

 

9. What’s a sustainable diet?

A sustainable diet has low environmental impact; adds to food and nutritional security; provides healthy lives for current and future generations; is protective of ecosystems and biodiversity; is culturally acceptable, socially accessible, economically affordable, fair, safe and healthy and can optimise human and natural resources.

The UN’s FAO 4 considers that the following should be included in the definition: nutrition, the environment, economic impact and socio-cultural impact.

10. What does the human food supply chain incorporate?

The food supply chain incorporates all aspects of food production, consumption and disposal, including: processed/non-processed food production, shopping habits, food packaging, food waste, food miles, appropriate calorie/nutrient intake.

A major reason for being concerned about the food supply chain is the carbon footprint of our food. For instance, there is a big difference in the impact of buying out-of-season products from half way around the world, when compared with buying locally produced, seasonal products.

 

11. What does the concept of trade-offs mean?

A trade-off is a decision that involves reducing or losing a quality or quantity of one option in return for gaining a quantity or quality of an alternative option.

Examples of food trade-offs:

Organic costs more than non-organic, but may be better for human health and the environment;

Sustainably-produced food from distant countries is good for the producing country, but has a high carbon footprint;

Processed food is cheaper, but worse for human health.

 

Final comment

I hope you found this interesting. Expect a few more of these plant-related questions and answers in future blogs…


References

  1. The Vegan Society []
  2. Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production
    Priority Products and Materials []
  3. PNAS. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. 2016 []
  4. Tracking progress on food and agriculture-related SDG indicators
    A report on the indicators under FAO custodianship []