On Nutrition

Interest in plant-based diets has swelled in the past few months due to intermittent meat shortages, along with the hope that a healthier diet might help us should we contract COVID-19. However, this plant-based eating was already trending pre-coronavirus pandemic, fueled by highly publicized research articles, Netflix “documentaries” that may have left you feeling like you were one steak or chicken breast away from destroying your health, and concerns about the environmental impact of our food choices.

So I’m not surprised that I’ve been getting more questions like, “Do you have to ditch meat to be healthy?” and “Is it OK to be an omnivore?” Many scientific journal articles published in the past few years would make you think the answers are “yes” and “no.” One of the most notable examples of this is the 2019 EAT-Lancet report, which called for global cuts to meat intake so deep that they were criticized for being unrealistic, elitist and nutritionally inappropriate for some people.

What gets lost in the discussion of plant-based diets is that you can enjoy a plant-based, omnivorous diet.

In the simplest terms, an omnivorous diet includes foods of both plant and animal origin. This leaves room for plant-based diets that include some animal foods, or what I like to think of as “plant-forward.” While a vegan diet of course doesn’t fit under the omnivore umbrella, as it excludes all foods of animal origin, many healthy diets do. Vegetarian diets allows eggs and dairy, and then there’s the Mediterranean diet, the new Nordic diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), the MIND diet — which combines the Mediterranean and DASH diets — along with many traditional heritage diets. Eat a moderate, 3-to-4-ounce portion of meat, poultry or fish with a heaping helping of vegetables or green salad along with a whole grain pilaf or a sweet potato — you’re eating plant-forward.

There’s little research directly comparing a vegan diet with an omnivorous diet, partly because there are countless interpretations of an omnivorous diet. Are cheeseburgers and pizza your major food groups? That’s omnivorous. Do you eat lots of vegetables, love the chewiness of whole grains, eat fish twice a week and treat bacon as an occasional treat? That’s omnivorous, too.

What current research does demonstrate is that:

There are countless advantages to eating more plants, but you don’t have to eat only plants. Why not focus on increasing your plant intake and decreasing your meat intake? More plants, less rigidity. Are you eating two cups of fruit and two to three cups of vegetables each day? Most American adults aren’t — and by most, I mean 90%. Do your grain choices skew toward refined (white flour-based) or whole (intact whole grains such as oats, brown rice and wheat berries, along with products made from whole wheat or other whole-grain flour)? Do your protein choices include some that come from plants, such as soy (tofu, tempeh, soy milk) and pulses (beans and lentils)?

Rather than assign a label to how you eat — “vegan,” “vegetarian,” “omnivore” or so on — look at the nutritional quality and variety of the foods you are actually eating, then shop for the best quality food that’s available and affordable.