Still Life with Vegetables and Fruit

Looking for Real Plants in a Plant-Based Diet

One of the hottest concepts right now in dietary fashion is plant-based diets. It’s on the way to surpassing the dominant theme of the last two decades – low-carb diets. Thus, some really exceptional claims for the benefits of plant-based diets are popping up in scientific literature. Apart from the fanciful nature of some of those claims, we have a more basic concern about these diets in popular culture. It can be hard to find real plants in a plant-based diet.

Writing in the Washington Post, Eve Turow-Paul and Sophie Egan point out that all the talk about plant-based diets isn’t really prompting us to eat more food from plants:

“There are 250,000 to 300,000 edible plant species on Earth, along with 2,000 edible fungi species. Yet the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that humans regularly consume only 4 percent of this mind-boggling bounty. Just three plants — rice, corn, and wheat — account for nearly two-thirds of the calories and proteins we get from plants, according to FAO. How boring is that?”

In fact, it seems that all the plant-based diet hype is doing more to enrich entrepreneurs selling fake burgers and their investors. Improving human nutrition and saving the planet? Not much of that is happening yet.

Eye Popping Claims

Forgive us, but in scientific journals we expect more science than speculation. So the excessive claims for the benefits of plant-based diets are somewhat dismaying. For example, in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Hana Kahleova and Neal Barnard suggest that plant-based diets might offer a “surprising answer” for COVID-19:

Adopting a healthful plant-based diet and lifestyle is a powerful tool which may delay the aging process, decrease age-associated co-morbidities, and decrease the risk of severe Covid-19 and mortality. It represents the most cost-effective approach and should be largely promoted and incorporated in everyday practice. This is a booster that is needed at this unprecedented time and that may actually work to mitigate COVID-19.

Surprising? Yes, this claim is indeed surprising. But our surprise is mainly because we expect a scientific journal to be free of such puffery.

Less Puffery, More Real Plants

Promoting plant-based diets is a great idea. But twisting that idea into commercial ventures that do little to improve human nutrition around the world is not so great. Here’s hoping we can move beyond the fake meat phase of this trend, put aside the puffery, and invest in a real shift toward the flavorful joy that can be ours from a wide variety of real, whole plants in the meals we eat every day.

Click here for the commentary from Turow-Paul and Egan. For more on the implications of plant-based meat substitutes for healthy diets and sustainable food systems, click here.

Still Life with Vegetables and Fruit, painting by Vincent van Gogh / WikiArt

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September 18, 2022

2 Responses to “Looking for Real Plants in a Plant-Based Diet”

  1. September 18, 2022 at 7:29 am, Al Lewis said:

    Pollan has it right: eat real food, low to the ground, mostly plants, and not too much. Anything else is a fad diet.

  2. September 21, 2022 at 8:35 am, David Brown said:

    Inadvertently, shifting to a more plant-based diet will reduce arachidonic acid intake which will have benefit in terms of dampening prostanoid signaling. Excerpt: Chicken meat with reduced concentration of arachidonic acid (AA) and reduced ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids has potential health benefits because a reduction in AA intake dampens prostanoid signaling, and the proportion between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is too high in our diet.

    Note that vegans and vegetarians would experience dramatically better health outcomes if they didn’t consume so much linoleic acid.