Most of the Irish population is confused over the term “plant-based diet”, new research has found, which is acting as a barrier from transitioning away from unhealthy Irish diets.
Meanwhile, just 4 per cent said they had moved to a vegan diet and 84 per cent said they had taken steps towards eating a more environmentally sustainable diet.
The research, conducted by Coyne on behalf of the National Dairy Council, sampled 1,000 adults in Ireland last month on their dietary habits and considerations.
Uncertainty about the meaning of a plant-based diet is a barrier to Irish people opting towards eating sustainably, says dietitian Sarah Keogh. Half of those surveyed believed it meant a vegetarian or vegan diet and a further 15 per cent did not know what it meant at all.
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Dr Aifric O’Sullivan, Assistant Professor at UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science, says the confusion arises as term “plant-based diet” is “not consistently defined”.
“We would define it as diets based mostly on plants including cereals and breads, pulses (peas, beans and lentils), nuts and seeds but that also include moderate amounts of animal-based products such as meat, eggs, fish and dairy,” she says. “In fact, the Irish food pyramid, which recommends varying proportions of plant and animal foods is a good example of a plant-based diet if we were to actually follow it.
“We know that Irish diets are not sustainable from an environmental and health perspective so any confusion is a barrier and we need to be clearer about what we need people to do to eat more sustainably”.
Ms Keogh says most Irish people last about three months on a vegan diet before regressing to previous habits. However, it was “really encouraging” to see an appetite among Irish people to improve their diets, she says.
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“Making smaller, sustainable changes may have a greater effect in the long run,” she says. “While only 4 per cent said that they had adopted a vegan diet, four times as many said they had cooked more vegetarian dinners during the week, showing that plant-based dishes that also include dairy and eggs are likely to be more acceptable.”
Ms O’Sullivan says personalised dietary advice may be more successful.
“Trying to change a diet too drastically is unlikely to work,” she says. “Some people don’t eat a lot of meat for example so general advice to reduce may not be helpful or may lead to nutritional deficiencies.”
The research also showed food affordability was a key consideration for consumers, followed closely by nutrition which was highest among Gen Z respondents at 67 per cent. Choosing locally produced foods ranked third in the top three factors.