A plant-based diet or a plant-rich diet is a diet consisting mostly or entirely of plant-based foods. Plant-based foods are foods derived from plants (including vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and fruits) with no animal-source foods or artificial ingredients. While a plant-based diet avoids or has limited animal products, it is not necessarily vegan. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that well-planned plant-based diets support health and are appropriate throughout all life stages, including pregnancy, lactation, childhood, and adulthood, as well as for athletes.
The term “plant-based diet” 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 cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds. However, use of the phrase "plant-based diet" has changed over time and examples can be found of the phrase being used to refer to vegan diets (which only include plant-based food, none from animal sources), and vegetarian diets, which may include dairy or eggs but no meat, as well as diets that include limited amounts of animal-based foods, such as semi-vegetarian and authentic Mediterranean diets.
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. In Europe, consumption of plant-based meat substitutes made up 40% of the world market in 2019 and is 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.
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".
Vegan author 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."
Some sources use the phrase "plant-based diet" to refer to diets including varying degrees of animal products, for example defining "plant-based diets" as diets that "include generous amounts of plant foods and limited amounts of animal foods" and stating that "The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund call for choosing predominantly plant-based diets rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits, legumes, and minimally processed starchy staple foods and limiting red meat consumption, if red meat is eaten at all". Others draw a distinction between "plant-based" and "plant-only".
In various sources, "plant-based diet" has been used to refer to:
- Veganism: diet of vegetables, legumes, fruit, grains, nuts, and seeds, but no food from animal sources.
- Vegetarianism: diet of vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, and grains, that may include eggs and dairy, but no meat.
- Semi-vegetarianism: mostly vegetarian diet with occasional inclusion of meat or poultry.
Although herbivory (a diet entirely of plants) was long thought to be a Mesozoic phenomenon, evidence of it is found as soon as the fossils which could show it. Within less than 20 million years after the first land plants evolved, plants were being consumed by arthropods. Herbivory among four-limbed terrestrial vertebrates, the tetrapods developed in the Late Carboniferous (307–299 million years ago). Early tetrapods were large amphibious piscivores. While amphibians continued to feed on fish and insects, some reptiles began exploring two new food types: the tetrapods (carnivory) and plants (herbivory).
Carnivory was a natural transition from insectivory for medium and large tetrapods, requiring minimal adaptation. In contrast, a complex set of adaptations was necessary for feeding on highly fibrous plant materials.
Modern herbivores and mild omnivory
Quite often, mainly herbivorous creatures will eat small quantities of animal-based food when it becomes available. Although this is trivial most of the time, omnivorous or herbivorous birds, such as sparrows, often will feed their chicks insects while food is most needed for growth.
On close inspection it appears that nectar-feeding birds such as sunbirds rely on the ants and other insects that they find in flowers, not for a richer supply of protein, but for essential nutrients such as Vitamin B12 that are absent from nectar. Similarly, monkeys of many species eat maggoty fruit, sometimes in clear preference to sound fruit. When to refer to such animals as omnivorous or otherwise, is a question of context and emphasis, rather than of definition.
Humans are omnivorous, capable of consuming diverse plant and animal foods. Fossil evidence from wear patterns on teeth indicates the possibility that early hominids like robust australopithecines and Homo habilis were opportunistic omnivores, generally subsisting on a plant-based diet, but supplementing with meat when possible.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 based on its low ecological footprint. These include the Swedish Food Agency in its dietary guideline and a cooperation 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.
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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A plant-based diet is not necessarily a vegetarian diet. Many people on plant-based diets continue to use meat products and/or fish but in smaller quantities.
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