By Alexandra Babcock, MPH, Dietetic Intern, Department of Nutrition
In the fall of 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an urgent report detailing the impacts of global warming by 1.5 degrees celsius and relevant responses for climate change. A number of suggested responses were detailed, with one particular solution that poses a unique value for both a sustainable future and a healthy one: eat more plants.
The IPCC points to research demonstrating that increased sources of plant-based protein in people’s diets alleviate some of the methane and water burden impacting the environmental output system feeding climate change. Similarly, researchers at Harvard School of Public Health have identified this “planetary health diet” not only as a means of promoting dietary sustainability, but also the health of human beings.
Researchers have estimated through modeling studies that 19-23.6 percent of adult mortality rates annually could be decreased from their current rate if this kind of diet was adopted. This way of eating also aligns with evidence-based nutrition recommendations for overall health promotion and disease prevention.
The message to patients seems simple: fill your plate with more plants. However, as dietitians and medical professionals, we know that is easier said than done. How can anyone who typically eats animal-based foods change their belief about what constitutes a complete meal or a filling snack?
Here are a few of the common challenges people identify and suggestions for overcoming them.
Perception: It’s missing something.
The challenge, for many, in healthy and sustainable eating is rooted in their perception of what makes up a meal. A plant-based meal, such as a warm-winter vegetable stew, may feel as though it’s missing something.
Reality: Fiber from plants results in a filling meal.
Consider striving to eating more plant-based meals by reducing how frequently you consume meat, poultry or cheese. Participate in Meatless Monday or try a new plant-based recipe for your lunch meal prep. Add mushrooms to displace meat in a burger or meatloaf, or slice chicken breasts or steak to plate smaller portions for serving at dinner.
Perception: Plant-based eating is more expensive.
Many people use cost-saving measures at the grocery store to make ends meet. Buying animal products, such as chicken breasts in bulk or ground beef on sale, are strategies people may use to stretch their budget at the market.
Reality: Eating plant-based protein is a cost-saver.
Many community dietitians argue that plant-based eating can be another cost-saver, especially when items such as beans, legumes and whole grains are bought in bulk. Try adding dried beans to your shopping cart during your next grocery run or purchasing local produce at the farmer’s market. Many supermarkets also have discounted day-of-sale carts in the produce aisle for fruit and vegetables that are nearing their expiration, but are ripe and ready for meal preparation.
Perception: I can’t get enough protein from plants.
Many patients question how to get the protein they need while following a plant-based diet. It’s true that animal sources have more complete protein per serving, meaning that the protein you absorb when eating that food has all the essential amino acids or cellular building blocks.
Reality: Eating a variety of plants and legumes gives you complete protein.
However, eating a variety of plants in combination, such as brown rice and beans, will give you the amino acids you need. By doing this and eating some animal-based protein foods, you can dramatically reduce the risk of not consuming enough protein.
As we celebrate National Nutrition month, I encourage you to consider eating more plants. You may find yourself adopting a new habit that not only puts you one step ahead of chronic disease, but makes you an ambassador for the health of the planet.