Plant-Based and Unhealthy?


Experts agree plants should make up a large part of a healthy dietary pattern. Humans eat plant roots (carrots and radishes), stems (asparagus and celery), leaves (leafy greens), seeds (including whole grains), flowers (broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke), and the seed-bearing “fruits” of plants (including fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts). All are packed with important health-promoting nutrients, and countless studies have found associations between consuming diets higher in unprocessed plant foods and lower risk for a wide range of disorders such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. But recommendations to eat a “plant-based” diet can be misleading. “I really dislike the term plant-based to describe a preferred or healthy diet,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and editor-in-chief of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. “Not all animal-based foods are bad, and most of the worst things in the food supply are technically plant-based.” A vegetarian diet built on pizza, macaroni-and-cheese, and baked goods may be “plant-based,” but it’s far from a healthy dietary pattern.

Plant-Based Hazards: Wheat is a good example of how a “plant-based” food can become a poor nutritional choice: A whole grain of wheat contains a fiber-rich outer coating (bran) that provides phytochemicals and vitamins (including niacin and B6); a germ rich in thiamin, folate, a number of minerals, and healthy fats; and an endosperm that is mainly starch. When wheat is refined to make white flour, both the bran and the germ are removed, and the fiber, 20 percent of the protein, and many nutrients go with them. To partially compensate for this, the government requires refined grains be enriched (have some of the nutrients, including thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, folic acid, and iron, added back).

“Much of what is harmful in the food supply (refined grains, starches, sugars, trans fats) is plant-based,” says Mozaffarian. “French fries and soda are technically plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian, and so are gummy bears, white bread, and ultra-processed breakfast cereals.”

Helpful Animal Protein: “With the exception of processed meats [such as hot dogs, sausages, ham, and bacon], there is no strong evidence that non-plant foods are contributing meaningfully to global health risk,” says Mozaffarian. “Research shows that there are plenty of healthy or innocuous animal-based choices (fish, yogurt, eggs, poultry, cheese).” Eating fish at least twice a week is associated with positive health impacts. Yogurt supports a healthy gut microbe population while providing often under-consumed nutrients and in some studies is associated with lower incidence of diabetes. Cheese is considered by some to be more of a neutral food: high in saturated fat, but also a source of protein and calcium (among other nutrients), with potential benefits stemming from fermentation. (Of course, in North America cheese is typically eaten with an overabundance of refined carbohydrates.)

Making Choices: Although animal proteins can be healthy or neutral parts of our dietary pattern, reducing the amount of animal products we consume and increasing intake of un- or minimally-processed plant foods would be good for our health and the health of our planet. According to a recently-released report by the EAT-Lancet Commission, global consumption of red meat and sugar needs to be cut in half and intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes needs to double in order to achieve a dietary pattern that is both healthful and environmentally sustainable.

So, while not all “plant-based” choices are good for health, and not all animal proteins are bad, a dietary pattern that makes plants the star of the plate and minimizes highly-processed plant- and animal-based foods (especially processed meats) is the best dietary choice—no matter what you call it.

Take Charge!

Not all plant-based foods are good choices. Follow these tips to achieve a healthy dietary pattern:

-Minimize highly processed “plant-based” ingredients, such as refined grains and added sugars
-Increase intake of minimally-processed plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains)
-Remember that most plant-based diets (with the exception of vegan) include some animal products
-Be mindful of meat/poultry serving sizes, and choose fish or seafood at least twice a week


  1. I detect you are feeling the growing tide of plant-based diets and their popularity. It’s easy to put up a straw-man argument that potato chips, French fries, sodas are plant-based and yet bad for you. Alas, you deleted the key term, “whole foods” plant-based diets, which ipso facto removes your straw-man from the argument.

    As for “good animal based foods” — eggs, cheese, yogurt, fish — you’re loading up on highly saturated foods and/or high cholesterol foods. It’s disingenuous to give such foods a stamp of approval in a nation (and increasingly a world) where cardiovascular diseases are at epidemic proportions. Some of those foods, e.g., cheese, are associated with things like high saturated fats, and growth hormones, and even prostate cancer. If you haven’t noticed cheese is pushed everywhere and put on everything largely because the US government is in cahoots with the dairy industry to push the product. As for yogurt’s benefits, one can get the same and better benefits by consuming a whole foods plant-based diet which automatically comes with high fiber content, which in turn nourishes the “micro gut population’ minus the saturated fats and cholesterol.

    PS Your site at one time promoted a book by John Robbins titled: HEALTHY AT 100. Robbins deployed ethnographic studies across several continents of remote and marginal peoples who exhibited two key traits: They had high concentrations of healthy super-centenarians and they lack most, if not all, of the chronic diseases which plague all societies that eat like Americans. What was their secret? High plant-based diets with trivial amounts of animals, usually fish.

    I purchased the Robbins book out of curiosity and was convinced by the author’s marshaling of the ethnographic evidence to try a vegan diet. I’m an anthropologist by training, incidentally. That was ten years ago and I’m happy to say that I and my family are whole foods plant-based eaters. Sadly, the book was removed from the list of suggested books for sale shortly after I ordered it. I wrote at the time pleading with whomever would listen that the book be put back on the list, to no avail. I guess books promoting a vegan diet are not wanted.

  2. Thank you for your articles. I always enjoy reading the research based information. Question on using Wheat kernels to make whole wheat flour… wheat kernels have phytic acid which can interfere with absorption of some nutrients in the body. ( magnesium and calcium) I had been told that placing the kernels in water for a length of time , then draining and drying before grinding into flour removes the phytic acid. Is this true? If so, what else does it change in the whole wheat flour then made? How long should it be soaked? What is the best method/temperature used to dry the kernels before grinding?
    And does it also remove some of the nutrients?

  3. You know you must separate a “plant based diet,” which could be doughnuts, from a whole food plant based diet to have the real discussion about diets recommended by physicians such as Dean Ornish, Neal Barnard, and Michael Greger, as you are conflating these very different diets. I trained as a MD resident at Tufts. I’m sorry but I can not separate the ethics of cruel animal factory farming and the pollution it causes from my diet. Please state clearly any funding you receive fro the animal product industry.

  4. Thank you, N. Abraham,

    I was skeptical of the ambiguous headline “Plant-based and unhealthy? As I read the article I wondered where is Tufts going with this misleading article. You rightfully pointed out the absence of the key term “Whole Foods”.

    You saved the day for me when I read your comments. Thank you for talking the time to set the record straight for those of us you can’t be as eloquent as you are. Good job!

  5. I’m not sure why you are always promoting dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. Unfortunately, I bought the government line that dairy was part of a healthy diet and I drank milk and consumed other dairy products for years, and I can’t help but wonder if this created all of my prostate issues. I no longer consume any dairy – in the animal kingdom, drinking milk from another creature is not normal, and I wish that I had figured that out 50 years ago. I look at it like smoking cigarettes – a little bit over the short run might not be so harmful, but a lifetime of consumption may create serious health issues. It’s the cumulative damage that matters. But thank you for pointing out that fewer animal products and more plant intake is generally better for one’s health. It can’t be said often enough.

  6. Interesting article. I’ve heard 2pieces of whole wheat bread turn into sugar in our body faster than a Snickers candy bar! So why the lunge to whole wheat pasta. I’ve now found Braille makes a multi grain pasta and buy that.


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