How Does the Plant-Based Diet Measure Up?
By Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., CNS
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.”
What’s wrong with following a plant-based diet? Isn’t it better for the environment as well as our health?
You might be surprised to find out that the correct answer to that question is, “not necessarily.”
Potato chips and corn oil are plant-based. So are vegan pizza and GMO grains. But more about that later.
First, a couple of facts you might not be aware of.
Did you know that the greenhouse emissions of some plants in our diet are higher than animal products?
Most people don’t.
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?
It’s time to retire the buzzword “plant-based,” at least as a synonym for “healthy” for us and our environment.
The elephant in the room: veganism
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,” 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 that animal-derived foods are poisonous and cause cancer. The book has since become a de-facto reference bible for the vegan movement.
Whenever I write about the value of 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.
Wait, Paleo is plant-based?!
Ask a vegan about the Paleo diet and she would most likely shun it because of “all that meat,” admonishing you to try a plant-based diet instead.
But according to the most extensive research ever done on paleo eating – the seminal research of Boyd and Konner, which extended over 25 years – the Paleo diet is 100-percent plant-based. 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, and nuts 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” is not The China Study
Back in the 1980s, a huge observational study was undertaken in China. It was a collaboration between Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese government. It was published in 1990 under the 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. 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 the China Study actually said. It’s Campbell’s conclusions about the study, a decidedly vegan interpretation of the data that was collected.
As others have brilliantly 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.
Let’s talk environment ...
Another fallacy about the plant-based philosophy is that it’s better for the environment and that’s certainly the prevailing belief. But is it true?
Environmental scholars in Germany and the United States 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.
The truth about edible oils
One of the greatest areas of confusion for people is the question of edible oils. 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 and are considered pro-inflammatory. Exactly what we don’t need in our diet.
And sustainable? Hardly. They take about 10 times more land to produce than palm oil, which is constantly being wrongly maligned as unsustainable and unhealthy, when in fact it is produced responsibly and sustainably and is one of the healthier oils on the planet.
This is where knowing the source of your food (and edible oils) matters.. Some countries, such as Indonesia, do not have strong environmental protection laws governing palm oil production. And we would like to see that change as much as the next person. Thankfully much of our palm oil here – here in the U.S. that is – comes from Malaysia, which has some of the world’s best environmentally friendly agricultural practices. 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.
Sacred cows make the best burgers
There’s a wonderful new book called “Sacred Cow,” written by two of my esteemed colleagues, Robb Wolf and Diana Rogers. The book, and the documentary movie of the same name, is a balanced, fair, and reasoned argument for the role of animals in sustainable food production. And, let’s be clear, you can and should eat animal products on a “plant-based” diet! Plant-based does not mean exclusively vegan!
In one particularly impactful scene in the 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.”
“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% 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.
A few last thoughts …
There’s a term in the health food industry called “greenwashing.” It’s when you get to label a crappy product “healthy” by using some buzzwords that everyone associates with health.
Putting the slogan “made with whole grains” on a box of sugared chocolate cereal is a perfect example of greenwashing. “Plant-based” is another.
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 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.
Doubt me? Just read the ingredients in vegan pizza.
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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).