Plant-Based and Unhealthy? – Tufts

Plant-Based Hazards: Wheat is a good example of how a “plant-based” food can become a poor nutritional choice: A whole grain of wheat contains a fiber-rich outer coating (bran) that provides phytochemicals and vitamins (including niacin and B6); a germ rich in thiamin, folate, a number of minerals, and healthy fats; and an endosperm that is mainly starch. When wheat is refined to make white flour, both the bran and the germ are removed, and the fiber, 20 percent of the protein, and many nutrients go with them. To partially compensate for this, the government requires refined grains be enriched (have some of the nutrients, including thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, folic acid, and iron, added back).

“Much of what is harmful in the food supply (refined grains, starches, sugars, trans fats) is plant-based,” says Mozaffarian. “French fries and soda are technically plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian, and so are gummy bears, white bread, and ultra-processed breakfast cereals.”

Helpful Animal Protein: “With the exception of processed meats [such as hot dogs, sausages, ham, and bacon], there is no strong evidence that non-plant foods are contributing meaningfully to global health risk,” says Mozaffarian. “Research shows that there are plenty of healthy or innocuous animal-based choices (fish, yogurt, eggs, poultry, cheese).” Eating fish at least twice a week is associated with positive health impacts. Yogurt supports a healthy gut microbe population while providing often under-consumed nutrients and in some studies is associated with lower incidence of diabetes. Cheese is considered by some to be more of a neutral food: high in saturated fat, but also a source of protein and calcium (among other nutrients), with potential benefits stemming from fermentation. (Of course, in North America cheese is typically eaten with an overabundance of refined carbohydrates.)

Making Choices: Although animal proteins can be healthy or neutral parts of our dietary pattern, reducing the amount of animal products we consume and increasing intake of un- or minimally-processed plant foods would be good for our health and the health of our planet. According to a recently-released report by the EAT-Lancet Commission, global consumption of red meat and sugar needs to be cut in half and intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes needs to double in order to achieve a dietary pattern that is both healthful and environmentally sustainable.

So, while not all “plant-based” choices are good for health, and not all animal proteins are bad, a dietary pattern that makes plants the star of the plate and minimizes highly-processed plant- and animal-based foods (especially processed meats) is the best dietary choice—no matter what you call it.

4 Comments

Filed under animal protein, plant protein, plant-based diet, whole grains

4 responses to “Plant-Based and Unhealthy? – Tufts

  1. One thing that the author of The Intelligent Gardener points out is that we need nutrient dense food to be healthy. That means eating vegetables that have been frown in soil that is nutiently balanced. If it’s not in the soil it won’t be absorbed by the plant as it grows. The bonus is that nutrient dense food is much tastier than the product of monoculture farming.

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  2. I agree 100 percent. I was a vegetarian for 28 years and about five years ago began eating some grass-fed beef. My vegetarian “friends” were furious; but my blood work spoke volumes. I no longer had thyroid issues. And my blood pressure was finally normal (whereas before it was too low, borderline anemic). I now have many vegetarian, even vegan, days in a row, but I will eat fish or grassfed beef. It’s all about clean, whole foods, not being dogmatic. Vegetarians will be on a high horse about healthy, but go for those processed boxed foods like Quorn, or the overly processed fake meats. To me, those are “treats” not a lifestyle; and not something to stock in your fridge.

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