There’s Never Been a Better Time to Go Plant-Based

Photo: Photo: Getty mages/Ryan J Lane

We called it… but did we get it right? Back in December, the Well+Good editors gazed into their crystal balls (aka a year’s worth of research, scouting, and reporting) in order to name what we were sure would be the buzziest trends in wellness for 2019.

Now, halfway through the year, we’re checking in to see how we did. Here’s where we were right on the money (all hail the power of cauliflower and oat milk!) and what we never saw coming.

At the end of last year, Well+Good predicted that 2019 would be the year of cauliflower mania. Boy were we right. Between Trader Joe's cauliflower gnocchi to cauli-bread, the veggie has gone from taking over the frozen food aisles to expanding into the middle of the grocery store. But it's certainly not the only plant-based food that's become, well, cool.

Consider this sampling of statistics: The demand for plant-based beverages (like oat milk) is predicted to have a compound annual growth rate of 6 percent through 2028, people are so hungry for vegan burgers that Beyond Meat's worth has skyrocketed to $21 billion, and Burger King is now selling the Impossible Burger. Oh, and the plant-forward Mediterranean diet was deemed the best eating plan of the year (sorry, keto). The evidence is even clearer than when we called the trend at the end of last year: Plants are here to stay.

Why now?

"There are a few reasons why I think so many people are interested in a more plant-based diet right now," says author of Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? Mark Hyman, MD. "Number one: people are stepping up to the realities of climate change, and factory-farmed meat and the way we grow most of the food in this country is damaging our land, our air, our water, our communities, and our bodies," he says. He has a point: The more educated consumers become, the harder it is to ignore that traditional factory farming is a huge driver of pollution, greenhouse gases, and deforestation.

"Number two: Compared to our standard processed diet, plant-based diets are better," argues Dr. Hyman. To wit, a landmark (albeit, small) study published earlier this year found that people who ate a diet entirely of processed foods ended up consuming more overall (and gaining more weight) compared to people who ate equivalently portioned meals made out of whole foods. Other research has associated consuming animal proteins (particularly red meat and processed meats) with poor health outcomes like heart disease and cancer. But one doesn't even have to go fully vegan (read: zero animal products whatsoever) to see the benefits of plant-based eating. The Mediterranean diet, which consists primarily of vegetables, legumes, and whole grains with small portions of lean meat and fish, is associated with better brain and heart health, longevity, and reduced cancer risk. "When done correctly, plant-forward diets can transform someone's health," says Dr. Hyman.

This is something celebrity nutritionist and Well+Good Council member Kimberly Snyder, CN, has seen first-hand among her clients. "I am 100 percent seeing a much larger desire of people interested in adopting a plant-based diet," she says. "People are waking up and becoming more conscious about their daily choices. There has been a growing focus not only on the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet, but also the environmental concerns of diet and how important it is on our planet for people to eat plant-based."

Want to know more about one of the biggest trends of 2019? Here's the 411 on oat milk: 

More options than ever

When consumers with money to spend become interested in something, brands react, and grocery stores, restaurants, and meal delivery services transform their offerings as a result. "The widespread adoption of plant-based eating by consumers of all dietary preferences has driven a major boom of convenient—and delicious—plant-based products," says Kelly Landrieu, Whole Foods market global coordinator of local brands. "Brands are capitalizing on the trend of convenience, and aim to make plant-based eating easier, even venturing into the world of grab and go."

In grocery foods, sales of plant-based foods are up 20 percent year-over-year, surely directly correlated to more accessibility to foods such as spiralized veggies and veggie tots, a wide variety of alt-pastas that use chickpeas and lentils instead of white flour, and chips made from everything from avocado to cassava root. Landrieu says she's seen the biggest boom in the protein space. "Within the plant-based landscape, plant-based proteins are still a big trend with customers as more and more innovative products come to shelves," she says. "Beyond Meat is really a success story in the category for their innovation and growth. They launched the Beyond Burger in one Whole Foods Market store in Boulder [Colorado] and in less than two years were nationally available. They set the bar high early on for other plant-based proteins in the space."

Plant-based eating has become so mainstream that even massive meat producers such as Tyson and Perdue are changing their food production by experimenting with blended lines, which are made at least partially with plant protein. In the beverage space, legacy brands like Quaker Oats have moved into the oat milk market. The restaurant landscape has changed, too. Chains like California Pizza Kitchen are incorporating cauliflower-based crusts and veggie noodles onto their menus; White Castle debuted an Impossible Burger slider on its menu in 2018 and has kept it as a mainstay ever since; Taco Bell announced in April that it would test a vegetarian menu at its Dallas restaurants with hopes to expand the offerings nationwide.

"It really helps to have so many tasty and satisfying plant-based alternatives to common staples that people don’t want to have to give up," Snyder says.

What's next in plant-based

While it's great that there are more plant-based options than ever, Dr. Hyman says there are still things consumers need to keep in mind when considering a dietary shift. "The key is that your diet, regardless of whether you are vegan or Paleo, should consist of whole, real food—food that nature made, not food that man made," he says. "I see so many vegans who eat a ton of processed carbs and Franken-foods and are suffering from nutritional deficiencies, and on the flip side, I see patients who are eating mostly processed meats and feel like crap." (Read: Swapping meat for super-processed fake meat isn't that much better for you.)

That's why it's important not to associate all plant-based products you see on the shelves with a health halo. To Dr. Hyman's point, many meat alternatives are highly processed and some contain potentially controversial ingredients (Impossible Burger, for example, uses a compound called soy leghemoglobin to make its plant-based patties "bleed," a lab-created ingredient that concerns some food advocates). No matter what eating plan you follow, it's still crucial to look at the nutritional content as well as at the ingredients list on what you buy to ensure you're getting a minimally-processed, healthy option.

For her part, Snyder thinks it will continue to become easier and easier for more people to follow a plant-based diet. "There truly has never been a better time to be plant-based. We are so fortunate to live in an era with so many amazing companies creating absolutely delicious and satisfying plant-based options," she says. "We not only have access to a variety of plant-based milks, but also we now have access to items such as coconut yogurt, cashew cheese, almond and coconut-based ice creams, and even plant-based sausages, eggs, and burgers that taste amazing. All of these options are making it easier for people to transition and I think that is just awesome."

So to the cauliflower haters, I hate to break it to you: It's a plant-based world, and we're just living in it.

Now that you're hyped up about plant-based foods, here are some ideas for what to make for breakfast and dinner.

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