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As a culture, we have become increasingly more concerned about where our food comes from, our health and the health of our planet. Rightfully so, given it’s the only one we’ve got. So it’s no wonder questions about and references to plant based diets have become more common. More so perhaps as we look to celebrate Earth Day, April 22nd. But what is a “plant based diet”?

The term “plant-based” if often misunderstood and thought of as animal-free which is not the case. In fact, dairy products and other foods that come from animals are a core component of several healthy eating patterns highlighted in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including the vegetarian pattern. Vegetarians do not eat meat, but there are many kinds of vegetarian diets, such as lacto-ovo-vegetarian (eats dairy and eggs), pesco-vegetarian (eats fish) and vegan (eats no foods of animal origin). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans note that healthy eating patterns include: a variety of vegetables (all colors), fruits (especially whole), grains (half to be whole grain sources), fat free or low-fat dairy and a variety of protein sources (including lean meats and poultry, seafood, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products). These plans show how eating healthy can be accomplished without sacrificing personal preferences and with an eye towards a more sustainable planet. Certainly a mix of plant and animal based foods can be a part of a healthy meal plan while remaining Earth friendly. As a matter of fact, dairy cows are often referred to as the original recycler, with roughly 70% of their diet coming from leftover food products humans can’t eat. (Learn more here.) Isn’t that amazing?

Individuals looking to increase plant foods in their meals without sacrificing the health benefits of those that come from fish, eggs, dairy foods, etc., should consider how much nutrition comes from each source. Potassium, fiber, choline, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C are under consumed by many Americans. Dairy foods provide 4 of these and if eliminated could result in further decline in healthy intake. Avoiding entire food groups decreases our food choices. With that, comes a greater need to consider how much nutrition comes from everything we eat. So, we might ask, will this food provide more for its overall environmental impact? Can I get multiple vitamins, protein, fiber, etc from this? Are there additional ways it contributes to a healthier planet? Ultimately, plant based diets are more than just fruits and vegetables but include a variety of sources.

Get your answers about dairy’s sustainability here and here, and feel good about including milk, cheese and yogurt into your plant based diet.