In contrast, Eshel said, feeding livestock requires a lot of cropland and fertilizer. So plant-based diets could make a big difference in those uses.
And what about the diets’ healthfulness? “The science is unequivocal,” Eshel said. “These meat-replacement diets would actually be far superior to the typical American diet.”
All of the study diets delivered healthy amounts of protein and more than 40 other nutrients — including fiber, “good” fats and a range of vitamins and minerals. The exception was vitamin B12, which is found only in animal products.
But, the study authors said, that’s easy enough to address with supplements.
There’s a bigger question, however: How realistic is it that Americans would move en masse to a meatless diet? It’s a nation that, in 2015, downed 25 billion pounds of beef alone, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I recognize, very clearly, that it wouldn’t be an easy transition,” Eshel said.
Not only for people, but also for cultural and economic structures, he added. The “labor-intensive” work of vegetable growing, for example, is much different from growing the corn and other commodity crops that now go toward feeding livestock (and people).
Vandana Sheth is a Los Angeles-based dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
She said people can find it hard to go to a more plant-based regimen because of cost, meal-preparation time or doubts about their ability to craft tasty dishes.
“It’s absolutely possible to enjoy a healthy plant-based diet and adequately meet all your nutrition needs,” Sheth said. “However, it does require some planning and knowledge about the key components required to make it well balanced.”
A good general meal guide, she noted, is to fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with protein such as beans, lentils or tofu, and a quarter with whole grains.
And while a few foods were prominent in this study, Sheth suggested trying a range of vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds — and “getting creative” with herbs and spices to amp up the flavor.
You don’t have to dive into vegetarianism, either. Sheth suggested taking small steps — declaring Meatless Monday, for example.
The study was published online Aug. 8 in Scientific Reports.