Meat has been a staple of the human diet for as long as there have been humans. But do we really need meat? Can fruits, vegetables, beans, and other food that grows out of the soil provide all the nutrients and energy we need to survive and even thrive?
A growing body of evidence suggests that shifting to a plant-based diet can result in major benefits to your health–and the environment.
Contemplating that shift, however, can raise a lot of questions.
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
A plant-based diet focuses, quite literally, on adding more plants to your diet. Meals are centered around whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes. The goal is to increase the amount of these foods you eat so that you can reduce the amount of meat, fish, dairy, and other animal-derived foods.
When nutritionists talk about plant-based diets, they’re typically referring to whole-foods, plant-based diets. This can sometimes be confused or used interchangeably with the term vegan, but the two have a few key distinctions. A vegan lifestyle focuses on avoiding harm to animals. Besides avoiding animal-based foods, vegans will often avoid wearing leather and fur and using products tested on animals. Also, a vegan diet might include more processed foods meant to imitate meat and dairy.
On the other hand, a whole-foods diet focuses on avoiding processed foods like refined sugar, flour, and oil. A whole-foods, plant-based diet includes ingredients as close to their natural form as possible.
Why Go Plant-Based?
We spoke with Chef Katie Simmons about the benefits of transitioning to a plant-based diet. Chef Simmons is the founder of the website Plants Rule, a celebrated personal chef in Chicago, and herself follows a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
Now, through her menus, recipes, and advocacy, Simmons is doing her part to spread the word about the wellness potential of a plant-based diet.
Typically, people deemphasize meat or switch to an entirely plant-based diet for one (or more) of three reasons:
For Better Health
“The research shows that the more plant-based diet you eat, the healthier you’re going to be overall,” Simmons told us. “It basically comes down to eating whole foods and eating foods that are rich in antioxidants.”
A plant-based diet can lead to improvements in heart health and a reduced risk of diabetes. Because you feel full sooner and for a longer time when you eat whole foods, a plant-based diet makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight.
Additionally, a 2019 literature review confirmed that plant-based diets have been shown to reduce inflammation, which, in turn, leads to a reduction in allergies, asthma, and other inflammatory ailments.
Older people, especially, may be attracted to plant-based diets as an alternative to invasive surgery or heavy medication.
“If you’re on blood pressure medication and you’re sick of being on it, or your doctor is telling you you’re due for a bypass, you might think, ‘I don’t want that to be my only option,’” Simmons said. “So, when people find this diet, it really helps them take back control of their health.”
Forks Over Knives is an influential documentary that sparked popular interest in plant-based diets when it debuted in 2011. Since then, the movement has blossomed to include books, apps, and a comprehensive website.
In a recent article, Forks Over Knives reported on a study that found lifestyle changes are just as effective at treating heart disease as stents and bypasses.
“I have seen patients with stable ischemic heart disease, whom I have treated with a whole-food, plant-based diet, see marked improvements in symptoms and activity,” Columbus Batiste, MD, chief of cardiology at Kaiser Permanente Riverside, told Forks Over Knives.
To Help the Environment and Improve Animal Welfare
The poor treatment and suffering of conventionally raised livestock is documented in widely viewed films such as Food, Inc., and books such as Eating Animals. The environmental impact of meat-based agriculture is also taking hold in the public consciousness.
“I’ve noticed in younger populations, interest in plant-based diets is driven more out of concern for the environmental impact of eating meat,” Simmons said. “They learn about the connection of CO2 emissions from cattle farms, CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), and from poultry plants, and they want to reduce the effect of their diets on the environment.”
Because It Tastes Good
After a lifetime of eating highly processed meals, plant-based whole foods can be a flavor revelation. The farm-to-table movement, Sunday morning farmer’s markets, and produce subscription boxes are offering people new opportunities to play with their food, exploring new fruits and vegetables they may not have tried otherwise. There are many delicious plant-based meals and recipes to discover like sweet potato and beet hash, leek and potato soup, and fattoush salad.
How to Get Started with a Plant-Based Diet
A Harvard Health nutritionist writes that plant-based diets can provide “all the necessary protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for optimal health.” But it is not necessary to switch abruptly to a 100% plant-based diet to enjoy some of the health benefits. As with most dietary changes, a gradual shift is easier to maintain than a drastic overhaul.
Simmons suggests looking for opportunities in your life to substitute processed food with wholesome plant-based options.
“Can you add a serving of beans each week? Can you add whole grains at breakfast? Can you eat more vegetables? Can you eat more fruit? Can you eat more lentils?” she asked. “Wherever you can add plant-based foods tends to be a good starting point.”
Simmons called out specifically VB6 (“Vegan Before 6”), a challenge put forward by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman to forego meat and processed ingredients until the evening.
“You make your first two meals of the day vegan,” Simmons explained. “Meatless Monday is also a nice way to try it one day a week.”
Ideas for Promoting Plant-Based Eating at Work
As with all wellness initiatives at work, leadership makes a difference. If management sets the example and makes it as easy as possible to avoid processed foods, employees will be more motivated to try—and stick with—a plant-based diet.
If your employees are interested in reducing their meat intake and exploring the nutritious and delicious world of plant-based eating, here are a few recommendations on ways to support them:
Designate one day a week for plant-based lunches
Get a group of coworkers together and choose a day to all bring plant-based lunches. Or, set up a company-wide pot-luck style lunch where everyone brings a plant-based dish and shares the recipes with one another.
Always include plant-based options in your catering orders
That way, vegetarian or vegan employees always feel included, and anyone looking to incorporate more plant-based foods in their diet have the opportunity to do so. You can also try ordering once or twice a month from caterers that offer entirely plant-based menus.
Make sure there’s enough refrigerator space for everyone
If you're eating a plant-based diet, it helps when you can bring in your own food to work and have room to store it at the office, as well as a microwave available for re-heating. Then you don't have to take your chances relying on the cafeteria.
Make your office a pick-up spot for local farms and food co-ops
When the plant-based ingredients come directly to you, it’s easier to make healthy choices. See if the local farmers market would be willing to set up a table at your office building where employees can shop for fresh produce, or if they can designate your office as a pick-up spot of orders placed ahead of time.
Hire a plant-based chef to come in and lead a cooking demonstration
Reach out to local personal chefs or cooking schools to host an in-house cooking demo. Poll your employees about what recipes they would be most interested in trying. The chef can share some ideas and tips on how to make quick weeknight dinners, travel-friendly foods, easy breakfasts, or whatever recipes your employees request.
Integrate plant-based eating challenges into your wellness program
A 30-day challenge at work was how Simmons got her start with a plant-based diet. But, she notes, the challenge she undertook was intense – no sugar, white flour, or oil for 30 days. You don't need to start with as drastic of a challenge, but Simmons suggests you could try, “For example, eat one green vegetable a day for 30 days. Or, your breakfast has to be plant-based or needs to include whole grains. Having these little challenges helps keep people motivated."
You can start by offering your employees something easy and fun, like our own BeanPower, EatPlants, GoGreen and FiveAlive wellness challenges.
Shifting to a plant-based diet is a big lifestyle change, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even modest increases in fruits, whole grains, and vegetables while reducing processed food can result in better health, increased energy, and less environmental waste. That’s something that should whet everybody’s appetite.