Scientific Update

By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, FADA

Plant-based Meals Cost Less

Researchers in Rhode Island developed an alternative low-cost meal plan to the USDA's low-cost eating plan. The Rhode Island plan is plant-based and does not include animal flesh, although it includes low-fat dairy products and eggs. This plan mainly uses shelf-stable food that could be available at food pantries.

The USDA plan includes meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, and eggs. The researchers calculated the cost of using each plan for seven days for someone eating 2000 calories per day. All costs were based on store brands or the lowest-cost brand if there was no store brand for a food. For consistency's sake, sale prices were not used. The weekly cost of the USDA plan was $53.11 and the plant-based plan was $38.75. In addition to being less expensive, the plant-based plan has more servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The nutrient contents of both plans are similar except that the plant-based plan is lower in calcium (about 100 mg below recommendations) and higher in total and unsaturated fat. The plant-based plan includes four tablespoons of olive oil per day; replacing this with other foods could reduce the cost of this plan further. In the USDA plan, meats, poultry, and seafood account for more than 20% of the total cost. It would be interesting to do a similar study using a vegan meal plan. For information about low-cost vegan meals see and

Flynn MM, Schiff AR. 2015. Economical healthy diets (2012): Including lean animal protein costs more than using extra virgin olive oil. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. 10:4: 467-482.

Vegan Diets: Better for Human and Planetary Health

Food choices play an important role in both individual and planetary health. Unhealthy diets can lead to early death and greater healthcare costs. The food system is responsible for more than 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. These facts are what led British researchers to a fascinating investigation of the potential effects of global dietary changes. Their research used mathematical modeling to explore the effects of a transition towards plant-based diets and away from animal products. They compared a diet based on global dietary guidelines (at least five servings of fruits and vegetables, no more than 1.5 ounces of red meat) that contained only enough calories to maintain a healthy weight, a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, and a vegan diet to a diet similar to what people are eating today. All diets were adjusted to reflect staple foods of each region of the world.

From a health standpoint, adoption of the healthier non-vegetarian diet was projected to result in 5.1 million fewer deaths per year. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet would reduce deaths by 7.3 million per year and a vegan diet by 8.1 million per year. These fewer deaths would be due to less obesity, heart disease, strokes, cancer, and diabetes. About half of the reduction in deaths is due to eating less or no red meat, and half to eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer calories.

From an environmental standpoint, worldwide use of a vegan diet would reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70% compared to 2050 projections. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet would reduce these emissions by 63% and a healthier non-vegetarian diet would reduce projected emissions by 29%. Healthcare cost savings could be up to $1 trillion per year with worldwide use of vegan diets, $973 billion with lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, and $735 billion with healthier non-vegetarian diets. Environmental benefits would be expected to total $570 billion per year for vegan diets, $511 billion for lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, and $234 billion for healthier non-vegetarian diets.

This study supports the idea that eliminating or reducing animal product consumption can have significant global benefits with regard to greenhouse gas emissions, deaths, health care, and environmental costs.

Springmann M, Godfray HC, Rayner M, Scarborough P. 2016. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. [Epub ahead of print]

Dietary Impacts of Climate Change

The World Health Organization has estimated that climate change is expected to lead to approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to heat exposure in elderly people, diarrhea, malaria, and childhood undernutrition.1 British researchers2 estimate that changes in food availability due to climate change will lead to an additional 529,000 climate-related deaths by 2050. Climate change-related temperature and precipitation alterations will result in reduced crop productivity. The decrease in global food availability is predicted to lead to an increase in deaths due to a reduction in fruit and vegetable production and to inadequate calories. Regions affected the most by these effects will be in the western Pacific and Southeast Asia. China, India, Vietnam, Greece, and South Korea are among the countries projected to have the highest climate-related deaths. These estimates do not include the effects of climate change on the nutritional quality of food, or the impacts on fish and livestock, and are probably underestimates. Changes in animal product consumption are of critical importance to slow climate change and thereby save lives.

1. WHO. Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s. 2014. Geneva: World Health Organization.

2. Springmann M, Mason-D'Croz D, Robinson S, et al. 2016. Global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change: a modeling study. Lancet. 387(10031):1937-46.

New Dietary Guidelines in the Netherlands and UK Promote Eating Less Meat

The Netherlands1 and the United Kingdom2 recently issued dietary advice that promotes lower meat consumption. The Netherlands' Wheel of Fire graphic, which is similar to the US MyPlate, recommends eating red meat twice a week at most, and using beans and nuts as primary protein sources at least two days a week. Red meat is limited due to its being high in saturated fats and its negative effects on the environment. Fish is limited to one serving a week due to sustainability concerns. Fortified plant milks can be used to replace dairy products. The new guidelines call for eating about 1.5 ounces more vegetables each day compared to earlier guidelines.

The UK's new Eatwell Guide has a food group "Beans, Pulses, Fish, Eggs, Meat, and Other Products" suggesting that beans and pulses (another word for legumes) are given top priority. The guide also tells users to "eat less red and processed meats." Instead of the traditional "Dairy Group," this guide calls it the "Dairy and Alternatives Group" and a carton of soymilk is included in the graphics for this group.

  1. Netherlands Nutrition Center. How much and what can I eat each day? (Translated).
  2. Public Health England. Eatwell Guide 2016.

Revisions to Standards for Food in Care Programs

The USDA's Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provides aid to child and adult care institutions and family or group day care homes to help them provide nutritious foods for young children, disabled people, and older adults. The requirements for foods served in these programs have recently been updated and seem to be more vegan friendly. One important change is that tofu can be used to replace meat. Vegetable protein products, soy products, cooked dried beans, nut butters, seed butters, and soy nut butters were already allowed to replace meat. Non-dairy milks that meet nutrition standards may be provided when requested in writing by parents or guardians of children and adults. No physician's statement is needed. Other enhancements to these standards are a limit on juice of one serving per day, an increase in the variety of fruits and vegetables, a limit on the amount of sugar in cereals and yogurt, and a requirement that at least one serving of grains be whole grain. These standards will go into effect October 1, 2017.

7 CFR Parts 210, 215, 220, et al. Child and Adult Care Food Program: Meal Pattern Revisions Related to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010; Final Rule.