The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that diet-related diseases like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension lead to an increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection. As the pandemic wears on, eaters are preparing more food at home and focusing on healthier meals. Cooking and recipe website traffic surged at the start of quarantine, as did curiosity for meat alternatives.
According to Nielsen data, plant-based meat saw a 264-percent increase in sales at the start of the pandemic. Whether or not this trend continues, it’s clear that consumers are becoming more interested in plant-forward eating.
A plant-forward diet focuses primarily on plants like fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds but does not eliminate animal products completely. Below are 10 common plant-forwarding eating myths.
1. Plant-based foods cannot provide enough protein
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that about three-fourths of Americans are eating diets low in fruits and vegetables, while more than half are meeting or exceeding protein recommendations. Meat is often touted as an eater’s most important source of protein, but protein is found in all foods—even whole-grain pasta, oats, or vegetables. Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds are just a few protein-packed plants. One cup of lentils contains 18 grams of protein, for example, compared to 22 grams in one serving of beef. By focusing on a diversity of whole foods, plant-forward eaters can consume more than enough protein each day.
2. Plant-based meat alternatives are flavorless (and have no texture)
Tofu has long been a meat-alternative staple, but plant-based eating has much more to offer. Seitan, often called “wheat meat,” is made by filtering the starch from wheat to create high-protein gluten with a similar texture to chicken. Tempeh is made by fermenting soy and can be marinated, fried, steamed, or eaten raw. It has a subtly nutty flavor, and companies like Lightlife, the largest U.S. tempeh manufacturer, also offer flavors like three-grain, flax seed, smoky, and buffalo tempeh. Countless combinations of beans, chickpeas, lentils, herbs, spices, and grains can be made into flavorful plant-based burgers, meatballs, ground meat, and even bacon.
3. Plant-based ingredient and restaurant options are limited
From restaurants to the grocery aisle, chefs and companies are responding to consumers’ demand for plant-based options. In March 2020, The Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association calculated that total plant-based retail sales reached US$5 billion in 2019, growing 11 percent over the previous year, a rate almost five times faster than total U.S. retail food sales. And OpenTable reported that in 2019, plant-based reviews on its platform increased by 136 percent compared to 2017. From sliced bologna to ground Mexican beef, there’s a plant-based option for virtually any meat craving.
4. A plant-based meal won’t be as filling
Processed foods are high in refined starches and sugar that are easier to digest, meaning they’re less filling. Whole foods are naturally high in dietary fiber that breaks down slowly, keeping the body feeling full longer. With both fiber and protein, some plant-based proteins can even be more filling than animal meat options. Incorporating healthy fats from nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, and coconuts also lends to a more filling dish. As long as there are plenty of whole foods, a plant-forward diet can fuel sustained energy throughout the day—and with fewer cravings.
5. Eating a plant-forward diet is too expensive
By focusing on minimally processed foods, shopping seasonally at farmers’ markets when possible, and buying staples like nuts, beans, and legumes in bulk, many eaters save money by moving to a plant-forward diet. The rise in consumer demand for plant-based products also means more companies are joining the market and supermarkets are introducing their own private labels. With a more established supply chain, plant-based meat, cheese, yogurt, and egg alternatives can become more accessible to all budgets.
6. It’s difficult to eat complete proteins on a plant-forward diet
The idea that plant-based proteins must be combined in the same meal to provide a complete protein is a long-standing myth. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that “the terms complete and incomplete are misleading in relation to plant protein. Protein from a variety of plant foods, eaten during the course of a day, supplies enough of all indispensable (essential) amino acids when caloric requirements are met.” Even if consumed at different meals and times, the body will combine the essential amino acids it needs on its own.
7. Plant-forward diets are nutrient-deficient
Plants are some of the most nutrient-dense food options available. Dark leafy greens and legumes, for example, are rich with calcium. Beans and lentils are high in protein and fiber, low in fats, and provide essential vitamins and minerals. Many plant-forward eaters cook with nutritional yeast, which contains B12, a nutrient primarily found in animal products. Focusing as much as possible on a variety of whole foods will supply more than enough nutrients. A good trick is to eat the rainbow: colorful foods contain many essential vitamins and antioxidants, and different colors ensure a variety of ingredients (and flavor!).
8. Meat alternatives are ultra-processed and unsustainable
As plant-forward eating becomes more popular, meat alternatives are appearing everywhere from baseball stadiums to fast-food chains. But many products labeled “plant-based” actually undergo the same amount of processing as typical junk foods, just without the use of animal products. With added processing comes a larger environmental footprint, as well. The best way to choose alternative meat is to check the ingredient label, opting for those with short ingredient lists of recognizable names. The Lightlife Plant-Based Burger, for example, is made from only 11 ingredients with nothing synthetically processed, and the company has committed to reducing its environmental footprint by 50 percent by 2025.
9. Children shouldn’t eat a plant-forward diet
An article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) notes that plant-forward diets can meet the nutritional needs of not only children but pregnant mothers, breast-feeding mothers, and infants. And educators agree; Los Angeles public schools adopted meatless Mondays in their cafeterias in 2013, and New York City, the largest public-school system in the U.S., began meatless Mondays in 2019. As plant-forward eating gains popularity, more plant-based alternatives children’s favorite classics like hotdogs and chicken nuggets are reaching grocery shelves.
10. Plant-based products are always healthier
Not all plant-based products are created equal. While french fries are derived from plants, they are also high in oil and salt. The plant-based Impossible Whopper may have fewer calories than the original Whopper, but it contains significantly more sodium. A frequent culprit of this is the veggie burger, deemed a health food but often full of sugars and unrecognizable ingredients. The key to a healthy and nutritious diet is minimally processed whole foods. Look out for plant-based products with a small ingredient list (which often translates to a more environmentally sustainable choice, as well).
Photo courtesy of Edgar Castrejon, Unsplash