Move over, meat: More than half (52%) of Americans are eating more plant-based foods, and plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy continue to fly off grocery store shelves. Reasons to jump on the trend abound. Eating a plant-rich diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, and type II diabetes, and other diseases. Plant-based eating is the most environmentally sustainable way to eat, according to the World Health Organization. And powering your body on plants may help you feel and perform better at work.
Read on to find out how plant-based eating differs from vegetarianism or veganism, what’s driving the trends toward eating more plants, and how plant-based eating at the office may benefit you.
Vegetarian vs. Vegan vs. Plant Based
Diets based on plants aren’t new. Plants formed the basis of most prehistoric people’s diets. Meat was a rare treat for our early ancestors, who mostly subsisted on vegetables, fruits, and nuts, according to most anthropologists.
Voluntarily rejecting meat for health, religious, or cultural reasons isn’t new either. Ancient Egyptians ate little meat or fish even though it was available. And 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras and the Indian religious leaders Buddha and Mahavira advocated for a meatless lifestyle.
But the modern terms vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based are relatively new. The vegetarian movement started in England in 1847 when the first vegetarian society formed to advocate the health benefits of avoiding meat. It was an offshoot of the temperance movement, which promoted avoiding alcohol to keep the body clean. Most early vegetarians ate dairy and eggs.
Animal-rights activist Donald Watson coined the word vegan in 1944 to describe his orthodox version of vegetarianism, which eschewed dairy products as well as meat. Modern vegans strive to exclude all animal products in order to liberate animals from human exploitation. Most of them avoid meat, milk, eggs, honey, gelatin, silk, wool, leather, suede, and certain types of sugar (because it’s often filtered through bone char).
Health researcher T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., coined the term plant-based eating in 1980 to describe a diet that includes mostly whole-food sources of vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. People who adopt plant-based eating usually do so for health reasons, and many aren’t too rigid about it. While plant-based eaters mostly favor plants in their diet—and many avoid all animal products—some may eat small amounts of meat, fish, eggs, or dairy.
The Rise of Plant-Based Eating
Plant-based eating is supported by scientific research. Studies suggest that people who eat primarily plants have lower body weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol, as well as a reduced risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. Plant-based eaters typically consume more fiber, vitamins C and E, potassium, folate, and magnesium than people who eat a standard American diet. (However, people who eat only plants may miss out on some nutrients, especially vitamin B12, if they don’t take supplements or eat fortified food.)
Even meat-eaters can get on board with the health benefits of eating more plants (while not necessarily giving up all animal products), which could explain why plant-based eating has gained mainstream appeal. But the rise of plant-based products isn’t just about health. Taste plays a role too. Modern meat alternatives made by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods look and taste eerily like the real thing, and they’re drawing more meat-eaters into the plant-based eating trend. Impossible burgers are bioengineered, heavily processed, and don’t claim to be healthy. But they’re tasty, and people love them.
Fast food joints are clamoring to get plant-based products on their menus. Impossible Foods teamed with Burger King to release the Impossible Whopper in select cities, and products from Impossible Foods grace menus at Qdoba, White Castle, and Red Robin. Del Taco, Carl’s Jr., TGI Fridays, and the Canadian A&W chain carry Beyond Meat products (and KFC may soon join the club).
In addition to addressing health reasons and taste, plant-based meat alternatives appeal to environmentally conscious Millennials who don’t want to support the factory-farm system. Each year, we kill 10 billion animals in the US. Nearly all (99%) farm animals in the country live inside giant Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where animals remain indoors under strictly controlled conditions to minimize costs. Factory farms contribute to environmental problems ranging from deforestation to air and water pollution.
Dairy operations also come with a list of ethical and environmental concerns, making many consumers eager for alternatives to milk and cheese. Americans drink 40% less milk today than they did in 1975. Meanwhile, sales of plant-based milk and creamer jumped 61% between 2012 and 2017. A large assortment of creamy plant-based dairy alternatives are available. They’re made from ingredients such as almonds, coconuts, soybeans, cashews, oats, pea protein, rice, quinoa, macadamia nuts, flax seeds, and hemp seeds.
Plant-based cheese and ice cream alternatives have increased in popularity as well. Industry estimates suggest sales of cheese alternatives will jump 8% per year between now and 2023, and sales of plant-based ice creams will increase by 14.8% between now and 2025.
Plant-Based Eating at Work
It’s not just individual consumers transitioning to plant-based eating. Institutions and businesses are jumping on board too. More than 40 colleges and universities, including Harvard, vowed to increase plant-based protein dishes by 10% in their dining halls.
Google highlights plant-based options on the menus of their on-site cafeterias to try to nudge their employees toward ordering them. Google’s catering chefs took part in the Better Buying Lab’s contest to develop meat-free “power dishes” good enough to lure restaurant customers away from chicken sandwiches, chicken salad, and other popular meat offerings. Google won the grand prize with a kimchi and mushroom taco topped with guacamole and cashew cream, which they hope will catch on across the country.
The group Vegan Leaders in Corporate Management (VLCM) has attracted more than 2,300 members who want to spearhead plant-based initiatives at their companies. At DropBox, member Cole Deloye revived VegBox, a community of employees interested in a plant-based lifestyle. Deloye hosts a book club, sponsors wine and vegan cheese tastings, and advocates for more vegan offerings in DropBox’s already vegan-friendly corporate cafeteria.
Advocates of plant-based eating say the routine is not only good for your health and the environment, but can also give you more energy and help you focus at work. Many powerful people eat a plant-based diet, including former president Bill Clinton, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, and Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey. When Gigi Carter, author of The Plant-based Workplace, transitioned to a plant-based diet to improve her health, she had so much energy that she took up competitive cycling at the age of 42. She thinks businesses could improve performance and save on health care costs by promoting a plant-based lifestyle.
Some research suggests Carter may be on to something. In a study conducted at 10 corporate sites of a major U.S. insurance company, employees who took part in a plant-based dietary intervention had significantly lower feelings of anxiety, depression, and fatigue. They also reported better emotional well-being and daily functioning compared to a control group. It’s not a stretch to see how feeling and functioning better could improve work performance.
“The future of food is plant-based,” according to Gigi Carter. It’s true: The trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. And that’s a good thing because plant-based eating outshines the Standard American diet when it comes to animal welfare and the environment. Plus, eating more plants can help you improve your health and may even give you an edge at work. What’s not to love?
You don’t need to become a full-fledged vegan to move plants from the sidelines to the starring role of your diet. But if you’re thinking about ditching all or most animal products, most experts agree the best way is to stick to a balanced diet consisting mostly of whole-food sources of vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Enjoy processed plant-based alternatives to burgers, ice cream, and other junk food only occasionally as a tasty treat. And consider supplementing vitamins B12, K2, D3, and Omega 3 and Zinc to make sure you don’t miss out on any vital nutrients.