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Plant-based diet: Man and environment

As plant-based diet, we define the nutritional patterns mostly based on the consumption of plant products. There are different kinds of plant-based diets, depending on the frequency and the type of animal product consumed, starting with some that allow small portions of every type (Ikarian nutrition, Mediterranean diet) or just some types (e.g., lacto-ovo-vegeterianism), up to the point of being completely plant-based (vegan). In our times, the consumption of large amounts of meat, especially red, and processed products of animal origin (cold cuts, fast food, etc.) has become a daily habit, and, considering that, perhaps it is time to think about changing our habits and the way we eat.

In the most recent decades, plant-based diet has been shown to promote overall health and well-being in a variety of ways. To begin with, there is a number of studies to claim that a plant-based diet helps both in losing body fat and in maintaining a normal body weight. This is mainly due to the fact that the increased dietary fiber "binds" part of the calories and, as a result, the body eventually receives up to 20% less energy. Furthermore, there is literature evidence to support that in addition to better weight management, this model also protects against cardiovascular disease, even to the extent that medication is reduced or stopped. Similarly, this effect is likely to occur due to the increased provision of dietary fiber and high-quality fats, as well as adequate amounts of antioxidants and diuretics, ingredients that improve cholesterol, triglyceride and blood sugar levels and lower blood pressure, alongside the effect we reported on body weight. Finally, a reduction in the severity of the symptoms and improvement in overall health has been observed in patients with bowel issues, however researchers are not ruling out adoption of the model even by people with mild or no problems concerning their digestive system. Accordingly, the etiology seems to be found in fiber and antioxidants, which eventually reduce inflammation and protect the gastrointestinal tract.

Regarding the impact of nutrition on the environment, the question has been raised for several years now about whether the food industry supports sustainability. By the term “sustainability”, specifically in the field of nutrition, we define the ability to produce goods in such a way as to ensure the best result for both humans and the production environment itself, long-term. In order to assess sustainability, the following 3 factors are usually considered: the amount of land used for production, the greenhouse gas emissions, and the cumulative energy demand. It is worth mentioning that 80% of deforestation globally is due to the need for arable fields, mainly for the production of livestock feed (e.g., soy beans), but also for livestock itself, to use as pastures.  In accordance to the previous, cattle ranching is responsible for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Based on those facts, a group of researchers in a recent study examined whether people's eating habits can have an impact on the environment. And indeed, they have shown that in all three of the aforementioned factors, the plant-based diet had clearly more favorable results than a diet high in animal products (such as the westernized type), thus concluding that by adopting a plant-based nutritional model, we better protect the environment and ensure sustainability, without jeopardizing the economy.

Considering the above, it is now understood that a diet model based on the consumption of mainly plant-based foods has multiple benefits, both for humans and the environment, in the long run. Changing eating habits can sometimes seem tedious, so conscious lifestyle change may be more effective. Let’s take the people of Ikaria, for example, a plant-based diet, some red wine, good company and a stress-free lifestyle, resulting in them being one of the few communities in the world with the best outcomes in terms of life expectancy and quality of life, while protecting the environment at the same time. It doesn’t sound so difficult now, does it?

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