Nothing brings on thoughts of change like a brand-new year. Resolutions to “eat healthier” abound (including for yours truly) and one very popular trend is a plant-based diet. Touted as both better for us, and the planet, it certainly is an appealing idea. Even the Golden Globes decided to serve plant based meals for everyone attending the award show. So what exactly does it mean? Add in some extra carrots? Drink only water and herbal tea? Give up red meat?
As it turns out “plant-based” is much broader than all of that. While it does bring focus to the inclusion of more vegetables, beans, fruits and whole grains in our diet, it’s often misunderstood and thought of as animal-free which is not the case. Think complementary, not competing. In truth, dairy products and other foods that come from animals are an important part of many healthy eating patterns, including the DASH diet, Mediterranean style diet, Vegetarian style and others highlighted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Each food and food group have a unique set of nutrients that contribute to overall health. Meal patterns like these emphasize the importance of each food’s nutritional value. Here’s why we should embrace diets that encourage a healthy intake of both plant and animal-based foods:
- Dairy foods provide 13 essential nutrients, including high quality protein, calcium and Vitamin D. The protein found in dairy can complement foods that are not sources of high-quality protein, such as cereals, fruits and vegetables.
- The unique nutrient package in dairy is a key part of healthy eating styles associated with multiple health benefits, such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Mixing plant-based foods with dairy foods can help to reduce gaps in nutrition. Of the 3 scenarios tested in a 2016 study, the diet rich in plants and dairy provided the greatest chance of meeting vitamin and mineral needs than plants alone.
- Additionally, a 2017 study simulated a variety of diets and the plant only scenario resulted in a greater number of nutrients below recommended levels, in particular calcium and Vitamin D, 2 nutrients already of concern per current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
- Cow manure is a valuable resource, contributing to a sustainable environment through healthy soil. Farmers can use manure as a natural fertilizer on their crops, reducing the need for chemical alternatives. Additionally, some use methane digester systems to recycle manure into clean, renewable electricity.
- Those healthy soils contribute to healthy food systems by providing several benefits, including reducing runoff and erosion and retaining water and nutrients in the land for years to come.
- In the last 70 years, dairy farmers have improved environmental impacts by producing the same nutritious foods using 90% less land, 65% less water, 76% less manure, decreasing greenhouse gasses by 63%.
- Approximately 80% of what cow’s eat, can’t be eaten by people, including cottonseed hulls, citrus pulp and almond shells, decreasing the amount of food waste going to landfills. It’s a win/win – the cow eats the corn stalk, the human eats the corn cob, the cow eats the almond shell, the human eats the almond, the cow eats the cottonseed hull, the human wears the T-shirt – the ultimate partnership!
Ultimately, plant-based diets are more than just fruits and vegetables. They encourage us to eat more plants, but do not require giving up the equally nutritious foods we enjoy like eggs, fish or dairy. Get your answers about dairy’s contributions to not only a healthier you, but a healthier planet here and here, and feel good about including milk, cheese and yogurt into your plant based diet.