A plant-based diet could be really good for you. But it depends on how you define “plant-based.”
Plant-based diets aren’t always green. Far from it. And they aren’t always sustainable. And … surprise, surprise, many junk foods are plant-based. Just check the ingredients list for vegan pizza.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe your diet should be loaded with plant-based foods, even — or especially — when you’re eating a relatively high-fat, keto-friendly diet! Remember, the real, original Paleo diet was plant-based: about 65 percent plants and 35 percent animal foods. (More on this later.)
Remember Snackwell’s? They were the worst of the low-fat cookies that manufacturers were flooding the market with during the low-fat diet craze, believing (correctly) that the public would confuse “low-fat” with “healthy.”
Let’s not make the same mistake with the buzzword “plant-based.” While plants are generally speaking great to consume, the term “plant-based” — at least as a synonym for “healthy” — needs to be retired. Quickly.
Is Plant-Based Always Healthy?
Did you know that the greenhouse emissions of some plants in our diet are higher than animal products?
If you’re like most of us, you’re at least a little concerned about the environment. So let me ask you this: Are you aware that some countries’ agricultural practices harm the planet while others are helping to preserve it?
And do you know which plant-based crops are sustainable and which may contribute to deforestation?
Veganism and plant-based aren’t the same thing!
So how did these two terms become so entwined with each other that many people think they are synonymous? Pull up a chair.
The term “plant-based diet” was originally introduced in the 1980s by the devoutly vegan researcher and author of a popular book called The China Study, Dr. T. Colin Campbell.
Campbell’s book claims that a huge study in China — a study on which he was one of the researchers – showed conclusively (according to Campbell) that animal-derived foods are poisonous and cause cancer. The book has since become a de-facto reference bible for the vegan movement.
Each time I write about the value of grass-fed meat and animal products in the human diet, I get letters from apoplectic readers who admonish me for being an idiot. “Haven’t you ever heard of the China Study?” they snarl. “It’s the greatest piece of nutritional research ever done!”
Well, no, it’s not. We’ll get back to that in a minute as well.
What is true is that the term “plant-based” is now used interchangeably with “veganism,” a more acceptable term to a vast swath of the population than the much more esoteric and demanding philosophy of eating that people think of as vegan. “Plant-based” sounds somehow more inclusive, less strict, more friendly.
Paleo Is Plant-Based!
Now, as promised, let’s revisit the statement I made earlier about the Paleo diet being plant-based.
According to the most extensive research ever done on Paleo eating — the seminal research of Boyd and Konner, which began in the 1980s and extended over 25 years — the Paleo diet is 100-percent a plant-based diet. They showed that the majority of Paleo diets studied broke down into approximately 35 percent animal foods and 65 percent plants.
In my book, 65 percent of calories coming from vegetables, fruits, nuts and tubers is a plant-based diet! What else would it be? The old food pyramid was about 55 percent carbohydrates, and it was considered “high-carb.” Why on earth wouldn’t a diet consisting of 65 percent plants be considered plant-based?
Yet no self-respecting vegan would consider a Paleo diet plant-based because “plant-based” doesn’t mean plant-based anymore. It means vegan. And that’s a very different thing. Which brings us to the aforementioned book, “The China Study.”
The China Study
The book by Dr. Campbell, The China Study, is not the actual study. It’s a book about the China Study, and it contains Campbell’s interpretation of the original study.
The original study — the real “China Study”— was done back in the 1980s. It was a huge observational study, undertaken in China, that was a collaboration between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese government. It was published in 1990 under it’s official title, “Diet, Lifestyle and Mortality in China,” with Dr. Chen Jushi (not Dr. Colin Campbell) listed as the senior author.
It’s a massive tome, weighing over six pounds and containing 991 pages, about 900 of which are pure numbers and tables and correlations. It’s still available on Amazon for $499.95 if you’re interested.
T. Colin Campbell was one of the researchers on that study. His book, also named The China Study, is his interpretation of what “Diet Lifestyle and Mortality in China” actually said. It’s composed of Campbell’s conclusions about the study, a decidedly vegan interpretation of the massive amount of data collected.
As others have demonstrated, it’s entirely possible to come to a very different set of conclusions about the same data. Campbell, like Ancel Keys before him, was astonishingly good at ignoring data that didn’t fit his talking points. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.”
Meanwhile, “veganism” has become a great deal more than just a fringe movement dedicated to eliminating animal products from our diet. It’s become a cause, an identity and a movement — one that demands fealty to its principles and tolerates no dissent.
As such, veganism as we now know it has lost all claim to scientific objectivity. “Plant-based” has now become a rallying cry, not a reasonable nutritional philosophy.
The Reality About the Environment
The prevailing belief is that plant-based is better for the environment. But is that really true?
German and American environmental scholars looked at greenhouse emissions data from 1967 to 2017 and published their findings in a peer-reviewed report. What their research shows tells a very different story from what is commonly believed. The highest global emissions among agricultural products?
According to the report, the top five greenhouse gas emissions sources are Indonesian rice, followed by Brazilian soy, Brazilian beef cattle, Chinese rice and Brazilian corn.
For example, edible oils create some of the greatest confusion among people trying to clean up their diets. We’ve been taught all saturated fats are “bad,” all unsaturated fats are “good,” but that old-fashioned way of seeing it is just not supported by evidence. Corn, soy and canola oil crops — the oils we’ve been told to eat — are mostly GMO. Which is exactly what we don’t need in our diet, since the long-term effects are completely unknown, and all the “safety studies” have been done by the companies that make GMO products.
But are these GMO oils and foods sustainable? Hardly. They take about 10 times more land to produce than, for example, palm oil, which is constantly being wrongly maligned as unsustainable and unhealthy. In fact, Malaysian palm oil is produced responsibly and sustainably, and is one of the healthier oils on the planet.
Knowing country of origin matters. Some countries, such as Indonesia, do not have strong environmental protection laws governing palm oil production. They hunt rainforest animals like elephants and orangutans. And I would like to see that change, yesterday.
Thankfully much of our palm oil here — here in the U.S. that is — comes from Malaysia, which is perhaps the most honorable actor. The country itself has some of the world’s best environmentally friendly agricultural practices. Malaysians work hard to protect their animals and animal habitats. By law, all palm oil grown and produced in Malaysia must be certified sustainable. Certified sustainable palm oil will have either the RSPO certificate (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) or even more rigorous MSPO certificate (Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil).
Plus … the Malaysian palm oil industry is actively involved in that country’s wildlife conservation efforts, including preserving natural habitats. In fact, Malaysia is the documented world leader when it comes to orangutan conservation.
The Best Burgers Come From Sacred Cows
“Plant-based” was a useful term when it meant what it was supposed to mean: a mixed diet with a high proportion of plant foods. That would make a diet of 35 percent meat (Paleo) most definitely a plant-based diet, but it would not make it a vegan one. Equating “plant-based” with “vegan” makes the former term essentially useless.
Two of my esteemed colleagues, Robb Wolf and Diana Rogers, have written a wonderful new book called Sacred Cow. The book, and the documentary movie of the same name, is a balanced, fair and reasoned argument for the role of animals in sustainable, regenerative agricultural food production.
And, let’s be clear, you can and should eat animal products on a “plant-based” diet! Plant-based does not mean the same thing as vegan!
In one particularly impactful scene in the “Sacred Cow” movie, they interview a former vegan who tells of her own road-to-Damascus moment: “I realized when I was growing my own food and living a vegan lifestyle that it was impossible to grow tomatoes without killing slugs and other pests. I was following a plant-based (vegan) diet because I didn’t want to kill any living thing, but I was living a lie. Plenty of living things had to die for me to consume my vegetables, and that’s true for any vegan on the planet.”
Some Last Thoughts
The health food industry uses the term “greenwashing.” It’s a great term. It’s when you get to label a crappy product “healthy” by using some buzzwords that everyone associates with health. Like putting “Now with Omega-3s!” on the label of a candy bar that now contains a microscopic amount of added omega-3. It’s marketing BS in its purest form.
Putting the phrase “made with whole grains” on a box of sugared chocolate cereal is another perfect example of greenwashing. “Plant-based” is a third.
Just because a product was “made” with whole grains doesn’t mean there are any whole grains left in the processed end-product. And just because a product — be it a house cleaning solution, eye cream or food — is “plant-based” doesn’t mean there’s nothing bad in it, nor, even anything good in it. After all, you can make some pretty nasty plant-based substances, especially if you use pro-inflammatory ingredients as raw materials.
It’s time to retire the buzzword “plant-based,” at least as a surrogate for “healthy.” In most cases, what people really mean by plant-based is “vegan.”
“Vegan” and “healthy” are not identical terms. As an even cursory trip down the aisles of most supermarkets specializing in natural foods will show, it is entirely possible to make utterly disgusting and completely unhealthy products that meet the criteria for “plant-based.” Sugar is inherently plant-based and so is flour. So are potato chips!
Still doubt me? Just check those ingredients in vegan pizza.
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, (aka “The Nutrition Myth Buster”) is a nationally known expert on weight loss, nutrition and health, and the best-selling author of 15 books on health. Dr. Jonny — a former professional pianist and conductor — earned six certifications in personal training and fitness, has a Master’s degree in psychology, a PhD in holistic nutrition and is board certified by the American College of Nutrition. He has written, contributed to or consulted on hundreds of articles in publications as diverse as the New York Times, People, Us, O the Oprah Magazine, In Style, Vanity Fair Online, People, GQ, Forbes Online, Clean Eating, the Huffington Post and countless others.
He is the best-selling author of 15 books, including Living Low Carb, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth and his latest, the revised and expanded version of The Great Cholesterol Myth (2020).