Ask Dr. Dairy: Can Animal Foods Fit Into Plant-Based Diets?

Unless you are vegan, some animal foods can be part of plant-based (or plant-forward) diets. On average, many Americans eat adequate amounts of animal-based foods such as meat, poultry and eggs, but fall short when it comes to vegetables, dairy foods, fruits and whole grains.

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are key components of healthy eating patterns. However, eating a plant-based diet does not mean following only a vegetarian or vegan (i.e., entirely giving up meat, chicken, fish, dairy foods and eggs) eating plan. Healthy eating plans such as ChooseMyPlate.gov, which is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), or the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), include a balance of food choices. That’s why all the healthy eating patterns in the 2015-2020 DGA embrace foods from plant and animal sources, including dairy foods like milk, yogurt and cheese.

These balanced diets, while plentiful in plant-based foods, also include some foods from animals, including dairy foods and protein foods like eggs, fish, or lean meat, at recommended amounts to support nutritional needs. What does being in balance look like? A study published last year simulated the environmental and nutritional impact of removing all animal foods from an American diet. When diets contained only plant-based foods, a greater number of nutrients fell below recommended levels, most notably calcium, vitamins A and D, and B12.

The authors of another study concluded that a mix of dairy foods and plant-based foods had the best chance of closing nutrient gaps to support healthier Americans. The study tested the nutritional impact of three dietary scenarios by increasing intakes by 100%: 1) plant-based foods, 2) protein-rich plant-based foods (legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy) or 3) dairy foods (milk, cheese, and yogurt), while proportionately decreasing animal-based foods. When plant-based foods were increased by 100% in children and adults, people were more likely to meet their nutrient requirements for magnesium, iron, folate and vitamins C and E, but less likely to meet nutrient targets for calcium, protein, and vitamins A and D. Increasing protein-rich plant-based foods (e.g., legumes, nuts, seeds and soy) had no effect because they were consumed in low quantities; however, increasing dairy foods to meet recommended amounts helped more people reach their nutrient goals for calcium, protein, magnesium, and vitamins A and D, while sodium and saturated fat levels increased.

So maybe it’s time to stop thinking about it as plant vs. animal foods. Animal foods make important nutrient contributions to healthy, plant-based eating patterns. Milk contributes calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A and D and B vitamins, as well as high-quality protein in the American diet. Well-balanced, healthy eating patterns within caloric recommendations that contain a mix of plant- and animal-based foods, including dairy foods, can help close the nutrient gaps that exist among Americans over the age of 2.

For those who are looking beyond a food’s nutritional value to the impact on sustainability indicators like accessibility and affordability or environmental impacts, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization high-level panel of experts report on nutrition and food systems has helped define healthy and sustainable food patterns. The DASH and Mediterranean diets, which both contain dairy foods, are examples of healthy eating patterns provided in the report. I was an author of the report and you can read more from me on it here.