Myth 1. Plant-based diets contain only plant foods
The term ‘plant-based’ can be a little confusing with many assuming it means a vegan diet, containing no animal foods at all. In reality, plant-based diets encompass a spectrum of different dietary patterns from omnivore to vegan, and everything in between. The commonality is that lots of plant foods are consumed.
From a nutritional perspective there are lots of good reasons to include animal foods in your plant-based diet. They are often the best sources, and sometimes the only sources, of nutrients our bodies, especially our brains, need.
Myth 2. Plant-Based diets are healthier
Not necessarily and in fact they may be lacking in some nutrients. Plant foods give us fibre and an array of unique antioxidants and nutrients. However, they completely lack nutrients like vitamin B12, long chain omega-3 fats and are low in others like choline or contain forms that are not well absorbed or utilised, such as iron, zinc, and calcium.
The term ‘plant-based’ can be very misleading. It carries a healthy halo when the reality may be quite different. Many ultra-processed foods are plant-based and these do not make for a healthy diet! Make sure to read the ingredients list to see what is really in the food.
Consider that most of the world’s healthiest dietary patterns, including the Mediterranean diet, Japanese Diet and medical diets like DASH and MIND, all include dairy and other animal foods. These are terrific examples of diets rich in plant foods, balanced with nutrient-rich animal foods. There is little doubt this is our best means of meeting nutritional needs. Should you choose to, you can of course follow a 100% plant-based diet but recognise that you will almost certainly need to include supplements and/or fortified foods to fill the nutritional gaps in your diet.
Myth 3. Plant-based diets are the only sustainable diets
The idea that all we need to make our diets sustainable is to eat more plants and less meat and other animal foods is wildly simplistic and not at all accurate. Issues such as loss of biodiversity, monocrops, soil erosion, chemical run-offs into waterways, deforestation and so on, are not solved by choosing only plant foods. At the same time, only considering greenhouse gas emissions does not tell the whole story.
Grazing animals such as cattle do indeed emit methane, a greenhouse gas, but over a roughly 10-year period this carbon is recycled back through the grass in a natural eco-system. This is a totally different scenario to ancient carbon being mined through fossil fuels. Plus, the land used for animal farming is not always suitable for crops, making direct comparisons of land use inaccurate.
The dairy and meat industries in Australia and around the world are making great strides in understanding, measuring and improving sustainability. Such improvements are essential and allow us to have confidence in ensuring dietary recommendations meet both sustainability and nutrition needs in an affordable way.
Myth 4. Plant-based dairy alternatives are healthier
When it comes to nutrition, plant-based alternatives to dairy don’t come close. Only soy milk matches dairy milk for protein and none, unless fortified, match for calcium. Even then the added calcium is not as bioavailable as that found in dairy, meaning it is less well digested and absorbed – leaving those that don’t eat dairy falling far short of calcium requirements. There are also more than 10 essential nutrients found in dairy foods including phosphorus, vitamin B12 and vitamin A, making these foods hard to beat for a complete nutrition package. These are whole foods at the end of the day, whereas many of the plant alternatives contain ultra-processed ingredients such as seed oils, added sugar, emulsifiers and other additives. Plant-based dairy alternatives are also almost always more expensive – a key consideration, particularly in the current climate of rising food costs.
There are of course many healthy plant-based food options. Just don’t assume they are healthier, more sustainable or more nutritious. The take home message is that we can all benefit from eating more whole plant foods, but this need not be at the expense of affordable, naturally nutrient-rich animal foods including dairy, meat, seafood and eggs.
For more information on dairy’s role in a plant-based diet, visit: https://www.dairy.com.au/sustainability/healthy-sustainable-diets
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