After a recent visit to Casey’s gas station, my son asked, “Are donuts a plant?”

He’s been all about dinosaurs lately, and learning about prehistoric herbivores and carnivores has brought up a lot of questions about what foods are plants or meat.

I told him donuts are made with eggs, milk and butter, which all come from animals. But flour, sugar and cocoa—because he loves chocolate donuts—come from plants and help make these sprinkle-covered treats. He concluded a stegosaurus would probably enjoy a donut.

Plant-based eating began long before our time, but plant-forward diets have created a buzz in today’s food conversations and labeling. Many questions remain though on what a plant-based diet is, and if meat has a place on its plate.

What is a plant-based diet?

There is no standard definition of what a plant-based diet is says registered and licensed dietitian, Cara Harbstreet, MS, of Street Smart Nutrition. Some of her clients view plant-based and vegan diets as the same.  Others acknowledge it as adding more plants on their plate next to animal-based proteins.

This style of eating, she says, is sometimes called a “flexitarian diet.” This pattern of eating could look like breakfast with plants, eggs and dairy, a plant-based lunch and a traditional supper of real meat with plant-based sides.

Are plant-based diets healthy?

No one can deny the health benefits of eating a variety of grains, fruits and vegetables. These foods can protect against certain types of cancers, reduce risk of a heart attack or stroke and aid in healthy digestion.

If people ate according to the MyPlate Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a majority of our foods would be plants. Research shows, however, only 10 to 12% of U.S. adults meet the serving recommendations for fruits and vegetables.

“Nearly all of us could likely benefit from adding a few more servings of plant foods throughout the week,” says Harbstreet. “I like to start there when advocating for more nutrition, colors and flavors.”

Can you eat meat on a plant-based diet?

“As a dietitian, I see no reason to eliminate or drastically reduce meat or animal proteins in your diet if you enjoy them and want to include them,” says Harbstreet. 

If people choose to avoid meat in their diet, she cautions they need to do so under the supervision of a dietitian or health care team to make sure they’re getting adequate nutrition and energy for their body. 

Real meat, dairy and eggs are regarded as high quality, complete proteins and are natural sources of Vitamin B12 to promote cognitive function and zinc which supports the immune system. However, Harbstreet sees food as more than the nutritional label or packaging claims.  

“When I think of how meat fits into an overall eating pattern, I don’t just consider the environmental impact or nutrition,” says Harbstreet, who adds promoting purely plant-based diets does very little in regards to climate change—a well-proven fact. “I also think about flavor, enjoyment, cultural significance of recipes, affordability and access, where it came from, who produced it and more. I wholeheartedly believe there’s room to enjoy all foods, and I think meat will continue to play an important role in our collective relationship with food whether we personally choose to consume it or not.”

I appreciate Cara’s perspective; yes, we need foods that nourish our bodies. And it’s important to enjoy food and not eliminate the ones we love. It shows me there’s room in our eating patterns for plants and animal foods… plus an occasional donut deliciously crafted from both.

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