With increased concerns about the environmental impact of how food is made, some have suggested plant-based eating plans may be better for both the environment and health. A variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and other plant-based foods are an important part of a healthy eating patterns identified by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), including animal-based foods. Food groups are grouped because they offer different nutrients that you can’t get from the others and healthy eating plans can be achieved with a variety of choices from the distinct groups. More research is starting to consider how different eating patterns could impact nutrient consumption of different groups of people.
For example, with an aging population (51+ years) who can benefit from a higher protein diet to help maintain healthy muscle, it is important to consider potential nutritional impacts if recommendations were made to move toward plant-based or animal-based eating plans. A new study in Americans aged 51 years and older showed that increasing consumption of either plant-based or dairy foods (i.e., milk, cheese and yogurt) within current eating patterns would directly impact protein consumption.
- For Americans aged 51+ years of age, protein consumption dropped by 22 percent when plant-based foods were doubled (animal-based foods were proportionately decreased).
- 33 percent of women aged 71 years and older did not meet the estimated average requirement for protein consumption when plant-based foods were doubled (animal-based foods were decreased).
- When milk, cheese and yogurt were doubled from current intakes (see Table 1 in the study) to an amount consistent with the DGA, protein consumption was within the range appropriate for healthy aging, although total calorie consumption needs to be considered for maintenance of a healthy weight. Low-fat and fat-free dairy foods provide an option to help people fit within their calorie limit.
- Additional new data in American children and adults indicate that besides protein, additional nutrients (calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D) would also be impacted if plant-based foods were increased and animal-based foods were decreased.
Although there are many other potential eating patterns not presented in this study, these results contribute to broader discussions of sustainable diets that also may help older adults eat adequate protein. The new study highlights that while plant-based eating plans can provide adequate protein, when animal foods are decreased, it can be a potential challenge for older people to meet their protein needs. Further, eating animal-based foods like milk, as part of a balanced eating pattern that also includes plants, could provide a reasonable way for aging adults to eat high quality protein and other important nutrients. Overall, more research is needed to determine what eating pattern is both healthy and good for environment. To find out more about dairy’s contribution to sustainability, please read our sustainability report.