The rise in plant-based eating may help us finally end diet culture for good


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While the specific rules may change, there always seems to be a trendy—and restrictive—diet of the moment. In the ’90s, going low-fat and counting calories were all the rage. Then in the early 2010s, everyone was all about juice cleanses and detoxes. By 2018, high-fat, low-carb keto was the way to go. But lately, even eating keto seems out of vogue among the most forward-thinking healthy eaters.

Instead, we’re seeing all signs point to plant-based eating—meaning a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and other plants while still leaving room for some animal products—being the major focus of healthy eating in 2020 and beyond. Since 2017, plant-based food sales have increased by 31 percent, according to a report from the Good Food Institute. It’s not because there are tons more vegans, but because more “mainstream” eaters are starting to adopt a plant-forward lifestyle. (Case in point: alt-meat company Impossible Foods estimates that 95 percent of its customer base eats meat.) What’s more, the shift to eating more plants isn’t being seen as a temporary fix or reset à la Beyoncé before one of her tours—it’s an ethos that’s being incorporated into people’s everyday menus. And some experts think that it could be the antithesis to the diet culture mentality that’s gripped America for decades.

“I cannot stress enough how incredible the shift away from diet culture is in terms of mental health,” says Cassidy Gundersen, a nutritionist and health coach who is getting her PhD in health and nutrition. Diet culture, of course, is the overarching belief system that equates body size with health and worth, emphasizes weight loss, and demonizes certain foods, nutrients, or ways of eating while promoting others. By championing thinness as health and focusing on restriction, it can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and potentially lay the groundwork for disordered eating patterns.

But moving away from this way of thinking can radically transform how a person eats, Gundersen says. “It shifts a mindset from one of restriction to one of abundance, and opens up a whole new world in terms of loving food and having a healthy relationship with it.”

“So many people are confused about food; the eating plan of the moment changes and suddenly there are new rules to follow. But with plant-based eating, there is [more] freedom to eat what you want.” —Cassidy Gundersen, holistic nutritionist

Plant-based eating, she says, might be a way to fight back against diet culture, in part because of how non-restrictive it can be. While many eating plans focus on counting calories or different macronutrients, going plant-based isn’t so limiting. “Instead of looking at a meal in terms of calories, you’re considering the nutrients and how they will benefit your body,” Gundersen says. The focus is more on adding more plants to your plate in the form of greens, grains, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, and seeds, rather than cutting things out. That’s a pretty rare stance given how so many other eating plans—particularly Whole30, keto, and Paleo—have long laundry lists of foods you can and cannot eat.

“So many people are confused about food; the eating plan of the moment changes and suddenly there are new rules to follow,” Gundersen says. “But with plant-based eating, there is [more] freedom to eat what you want.”

To this point, Brian Kateman, the president and co-founder of Reducetarian Foundation (which aims to reduce meat intake, improve human health, protect the environment, and spare animals from unnecessary cruelty), says plant-based eating isn’t an all-or-nothing approach, which makes it easier to follow in the long-run. “Consumers used to view vegan foods as being only for vegans. That false divide is finally starting to break down, and because of that, we are seeing more individuals cut back on the amount of animal products they consume and eating more plants,” he says.

Being able to follow a generally healthy plan consistently pays off for your health. “Clients who I work with have tried every diet out there,” Gundersen says. “What they find is that something will work for them in the short-term, but ultimately they end up back where they started or worse off. What’s appealing about a plant-based lifestyle is that it’s sustainable and there is also a wealth of research showing it’s beneficial long-term, too.”

“I predict that in the next decade it will become even more commonplace to eat affordable, delicious, and convenient vegan options, and both the planet and the people that inhabit it will be better for it.” —Brian Kateman, president and co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation

For example, the plant-forward Mediterranean diet (aka the gold standard of health experts everywhere) is associated with tons of benefits, from reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and improved longevity. Meanwhile, yo-yo dieting—which is where someone follows a super-strict diet temporarily to lose weight, stops for a while, then starts back up again—has been associated with a host of health issues, including an increased risk of breast and endometrial cancers and heart disease.

But the benefits of eating plant-based go beyond the physical.  “Our Earth can’t afford for us to continue to eat meat at these unsustainable levels,” Kateman says. Conventional factory farming of animals has massively contributed to greenhouse gas emission, deforestation, land pollution, and other environmental issues, and the practices used to create animal products can be cruel and inhumane. The environment and animal rights have always been important to previous generations of vegans and vegetarians, but as the climate crisis continues to grow more dire, these values will be critical to a greater number of healthy eaters. This emphasis could help food’s purpose and worth transcend beyond calories and body types to be more about a larger goal of doing better for all of humankind.

Diet culture is far from dead. But we’re hoping that that the less restrictive, more inclusive plant-based movement will continue to encourage more and more people to ditch unhealthy, restrictive diets and embrace eating what’s good for themselves and the health of the planet. “I predict that in the next decade it will become even more commonplace to eat affordable, delicious, and convenient vegan options, and both the planet and the people that inhabit it—not to mention the non-human animals—will be better for it,” predicts Kateman. Hear, hear.

One plant-based trend taking over: chickpeas. If you’re new to eating primarily plant-based, don’t make these mistakes.

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