23 Jul The drivers behind the growth of plant-based diets
Plant-based diets such as veganism have grown in popularity around the world in recent years, to the extent that you will now find several restaurants in any major city serving exclusively plant-based food. What has driven this increase in people embracing the benefits of plant-based nutrition? Read several key factors:
1. Increasing environmental impact awareness
Many people choose to switch to plant-based diets for ethical reasons. As subjects such as global warming and climate change have become increasingly debated topics, consumers are seeking ways to reduce their environmental impact.
According to one resource, ‘greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein for beef and lamb are about 250 times those of legumes’. As more consumers become conscious of waste and our individual ecological footprints, it makes sense that more people are adopting plant-based diets.
2. Discovery of the health benefits of plant-based diets
Besides the smaller ecological impact, many plant crops produce compared to resource-intensive livestock, those who have embraced plant-based diets have other motivations, too. The links between consuming saturated fat and meats high in cholesterol mean that health-conscious consumers are choosing health-focused diets.
Well-known benefits of plant-based diets include better digestive health (due to balanced fibre intake) as well as lower risks of heart disease. As more research is being conducted into risk factors for diseases such as cancer, evidence is stacking up in favour of plant-based diets that minimise carcinogenic compounds.
3. Weight management benefits
Many consumers are constantly trying to find ways to lose weight, yet unhealthy convenience foods and meals high in starchy carbohydrates and saturated fats can make managing your weight hard. A study comparing South Asian vegetarians and non-vegetarians from the same demographic, for example, found that vegetarians had smaller waist circumferences as well as lower amounts of abdominal fat and blood sugar.
Further, the study found that even with alterations in eating habits, vegetarians were less likely to gain weight than their meat-eating peers.
4. Increasing awareness of good nutrition
The internet has made more information on nutrition available to the average person than ever before. This empowers consumers to research the ingredients of the food they eat and make informed choices. Younger consumers, in particular, have become more aware of issues such as transparency in the farm-to-table chain.
Eating trends such as ‘whole-foods’ and ‘raw food’ have resulted in many focusing on consuming plants such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds and nuts that have had as little processing as possible.
5. Scepticism regarding refined foods
With the increasing trendiness of healthy eating, many consumers have become sceptical of refined foods that contain ingredients such as added sugar or palm oil. This increasing awareness of the difference between natural and processed ingredients and their nutritional content has led many companies to branch out into alternative versions of well-established food products.
Coca-Cola, for example, introduced several variants of its soda using natural sweeteners such as stevia in place of sugar or chemical sweeteners such as xylitol. There is greater trust in plant-based foods that have no added sugar by nature.
6. Food intolerances
Many people have made the switch to food-based diets due to food intolerances. For example, a person who is allergic to penicillin may have allergic reactions to meat from livestock treated with penicillin. Dairy is one of the most common food intolerances, with many people experiencing discomforts such as bloating and diarrhoea due to milk consumption and thus choosing to switch to non-animal-derived milk alternatives such as rice, almond or oat milk.
These changes, in turn, are driving retail choice. Coffee shops, for example, now offer almond milk and other substitutes alongside cow’s milk. This also means that more people can try plant-derived alternatives and choose according to preference, whether they have food intolerances or not.
7. Spirituality and religion
Some choose to adopt plant-based diets due to religious or cultural belief. For example, in South Asia religions such as Jainism and Buddhism advocate a ‘do no harm’ approach to diet and nutrition. As these belief systems have grown in Western countries the dietary views and principles attached to them have also grown in popularity.
8. Discovering greater energy and performance via plant-based nutrition
The energy benefits of plant-based diets continue to drive many athletes and others seeking slow-release nutrition to turn to plant-based food. Hannah Teter – a Gold-winning snowboarder with a humanitarian interest in Africa, – said in a 2017 interview about her plant-based diet, ‘I feel stronger than I’ve ever been, mentally, physically, and emotionally. My plant-based diet has opened up more doors to being an athlete. It’s a whole other level that I’m elevating to. I stopped eating animals about a year ago, and it’s a new life. I feel like a new person, a new athlete.’
9. Animal welfare protection
As consumers become more aware of ethical questions surrounding meat production and the agricultural industry, many are turning to plant-based diets in order to ensure that they do not knowingly or inadvertently support any forms of animal cruelty. The growth in the media presence of organisations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and similar lobby groups has also given consumers more exposure to some of the unethical practices employed to satisfy the massive demand for animal produce globally.
As you can see from the above examples, there are many factors driving the adoption of plant-based diets around the world. From the health benefits of raw and fresh plant-based foods to the big ethical questions of modern times, many consumers are choosing to eat vegetarian for a combination of personal and political reasons.