Does plant-based necessarily mean healthy and sustainable?


As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recalls, diets based mostly on plant foods provide both health and environmental benefits. This statement especially applies to diets that are diversified, rich in raw products, consisted mainly of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, legumes, and nuts. However, a plant-based diet is not necessarily healthy.

Based on 3 recent studies, this Global Fruit and Vegetables Newsletter shed light on this common misconception:

The first one is a systematic review of the literature that examined evidence regarding the influence of vegetarian diets (from pesco-vegetarian to vegan) during complementary feeding on child development and health in Western countries. Simeone et al. concluded that vegetarian diets should not be recommended during complementary feeding due to the risk of vitamin B12, DHA, and iron deficiencies that can alter the nervous system. However, the level of evidence in the studies included in this review was low to very low and most studies present major biases.

The second study investigated the association between the quality of a plant-based diet and the risk of frailty among women over 60 years of age. The quality was assessed using an index reflecting both health-promoting and health-impairing “plant-based” dimensions. A health-promoting plant-based diet was associated with a lower risk of frailty while a health-impairing one was associated with a higher risk of frailty.

In the final article based on a plenary lecture during the Nutrition Society Summer Conference 2021, J.I. Macdiarmid states that while reducing meat and dairy consumption is necessary for health and climate, modern ultra-processed plant-based diets – notably popular among young people and recent vegetarians – are neither healthy nor sustainable and differ greatly from traditional plant-based diets.

Julia Baudry Nutrition Epidemiologist, INRAE
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