As we round the corner on month seven of life during a pandemic, a few lasting truths appear to be emerging: One is that we need to adopt better hygiene, since frequent hand-washing and wearing masks can stop the spread of the virus. The other is that we need to eat better, and if the industry forecasters are correct, American consumers are vastly embracing more plant-based foods and leaving animal products out of their carts, as awareness about where our food comes from has grown. Americans are choosing healthier food, as well as that which won’t impact the planet, and they care more about the way their food is processed.
This new plant-based food trend is driven by flexitarians more than a strictly vegan approach since more people are adding plants to their plate than swearing off all animal products. But sales of plant-based foods have outpaced other categories by more than five to one and sales of meatless meat rose 35 percent since the pandemic buying spree began.
If there is a small silver lining to this lasting health crisis, it’s that we are taking better care of our health by eating fewer animal products and choosing more plant-based options. Since the start of the pandemic, 23 percent more Americans are consuming more plant-based foods, and the sales of plant-based meats is expected to top $1 billion for the first time ever this year, according to the Good Food Institute which reports on trends of plant-based eating. Meanwhile, sales of meat and poultry are down for the first time in six years.
That kind of consumer awareness could just lead to longer life spans in this country, as a shift toward a more plant-based diet is known to be healthier, linked to lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity (and related diseases), hypertension, and cancer. A plant-based diet has also been shown to be helpful in losing unwanted weight.
Ryan Andrews, MS, RD, Principal Nutritionist and Advisor for Precision Nutrition, and author of Drop the Fat and Live Lean, A Guide to Plant-Based Eating who works to coach clients on how to switch to healthier habits and adopt plant-based nutrition, has seen a shift in awareness among consumers about where their food comes from, and a desire to eat cleaner, leaner and have less impact on the environment with the choices they make.
“There has been a big shift, especially since the pandemic, in how people are eating,” Andrews said when I interviewed him on the topic of nutrition choices during a pandemic. “People are starting to think about where their food comes from. And if you think about where food comes from, it’s going to lead you to a more plant-based diet.”Factory farmed/CAFO animal products are terrible for you, terrible for the planet, and terrible for animals.”
Andrews adds that more people now “have the bandwidth’ to pay attention to where their food originates, or is processed, and how that affects their health and the planet. This was due in large part to the myriad stories about thousands of meat plant workers who in May and June were getting sick from COVID-19, in hotspots across 39 states, that forced the closure of meat plants. Consumers reacted by turning away from animal products to try plant-based meats instead.
“This has been a pivotal moment and a chance for people to start to think about where their food is coming from,” says Andrews. That might only go as far as: ‘I wonder who is touching my food?’ and ‘Is it going to make me sick?’ and ‘Could I get coronavirus from my food?’ ” (A recent study found that coronavirus can live for up to three weeks frozen on meat, but so far no confirmed incidents of coronavirus being spread on food have been reported.)
“Different people and different groups are coming at it from different angles,” Andrews continues. “To say people are thinking about farms and animals is a stretch, so it’s not about that necessarily. But anything that gets people thinking about food and where it comes is a positive thing.”
Raising Awareness for Personal Health and the Sake of the Planet
During the pandemic, celebrities have expressed the importance of plant-based eating for the sake of human health and the planet–as well as to put an end to animal cruelty–and Lewis Hamilton, the Formula 1 driver who is an outspoken advocate of plant-based eating, just announced he will be racing in a new series of cross country races in a partnership with Electronic E, the sustainable electric car company, on terrain that has been most dramatically affected by climate change, to raise awareness of what people can do to help slow or turn back the global warming and climate change crisis.
Plant-based eating is not binary, as more people are “just adding plants” to their diets
“It’s interesting that now, months after the pandemic first hit, there is definitely a higher level of awareness about what is happening on the planet and how our diets connect to that,” says Andrews. In his book he said there were more people who believe they’ve seen signs of alien life in the universe than have chosen to eat a strictly vegan diet. So the growth is not about pure veganism as a way of life, but about adding plant-based foods for health and the planet.
‘I’ll do an informal survey when I speak to a group about nutrition and ask: Who cares about the animals? And 100 percent say they do. But when it comes to investigating where their food comes from, and the impact their food choices have on their health and the planet, it’s a smaller group since they are aware of the impact food has on animals and the planet but they are not all ready to give up all their favorite foods. It’s easier to add plant-based foods instead, so that’s where I encourage people to begin,” he adds.
“They love the idea of just adding more and more plant-based foods to their diet, and eventually that leads to less and less animal products. I call it Positive Dietary Displacement.”
This may not be popular in the vegan community, but more consumers want to eat more plant-based foods without swearing off all meat and dairy, he says, and that’s what he sees when he coaches people who want to eat better. “To me, it’s not a binary issue, of animal products versus no animal products. People just want to eat better to be healthy.”
Some people might think, ‘I need meat to be strong or healthy.’ and since I don’t want to dismiss anybody from the start and say that is false and it’s a myth, instead I will work with them to help them understand that you can get protein from plants and you can get calcium, iron, magnesium, and all your vitamins and nutrients without needing to eat animal product. But it’s an education–when I start working with people, and individuals come with a set idea of what they need.
“Everything from genetics to digestion to food preference comes to play. Individuals walk in with their own preconceived ideas of what they want or need to eat, and there is nuance to helping them give up foods they are used to eating. Maybe some people need one thing or another [to start]. Then they learn about how plant-based eating is healthier and they are ready to move more in that direction,” he adds.