What to Eat for Health and Sustainability

The 2023 Stanford Food Summit united researchers identifying plant-based solutions to major public health and sustainability challenges.

Plant-based foods at the summit, including (clockwise from bottom): red cabbage sauerkraut, asparagus, Beyond Steak Vietnamese noodle salad, orange and endive salad, and Japanese sweet potato and parsnip salad with farro. Photo Credit: Omar Navarro

April 24, 2023

By Lindsay Sterling

On the eve of Earth Month, 190 Stanford researchers and community partners gathered at Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center at Stanford University to share the latest research on plant-based solutions to major public health and environmental challenges. The daylong conference, called the Stanford Food Summit, featured more than 40 speakers evaluating solutions to problems ranging from diabetes to heart disease to global warming.  

Opening the conference was keynote speaker Ethan Brown, the founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, a company that sells plant-based meat products at 188,000 retail and food service locations globally. “If you were to bring all of the cattle together in the world,” he shared, “they would be the 3rd largest emitter as a nation in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.”  

Brown initially was interested in starting Beyond Meat for environmental reasons. “But then,” he said, “I started to learn about the health benefits, and that really sold me. I became fascinated by the fact that by focusing on the protein at the center of the plate, and converting that from animal protein to plant protein, I could help solve for climate change, human health, natural resource use, and animal welfare—all at the same time.”

Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, at the Stanford Food Summit. Photo Credit: Omar Navarro

In 2021, Beyond Meat donated funds to Stanford to support a Stanford Plant-Based Diet Initiative, a research lab in the Department of Medicine offering biannual seed grant awards to enable pilot research studying plant-based eating and its effects on human health and sustainability. 


Ten recipients of those seed grants shared their works-in-progress and research findings at the conference. Tamiko Katsumoto, MD, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Stanford, is working on training doctors about plant-based eating because, as she stated in her presentation, “Over 70% of chronic illnesses can be prevented or even reversed by eating a whole food plant-based diet.” 


Yong Woong Jun, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in a Stanford chemistry lab, shared the results of his study on the differences in cooked plant and animal DNA in affecting the human body. “Eating a vegetarian diet could lower the risk of cancer by 14%.” 


Stanford researchers awarded Plant-Based Diet Initiative seed grants, from left: Yong Woong Jun, PhD; Carlie Arbaugh, MD; Zakaria Doueirim, Maryam Makowski, PhD; Matt Landry, PhD; Marwa Abu El Haija, MD; Bhavika Mam, PhD; Tamiko Katsumoto, MD; Cintia Kimura, MD. Photo credit: Omar Navarro.


Over 70% of chronic illnesses can be prevented or even reversed by eating a whole food plant-based diet.

Marwa Abu El Haija, MD, a gastroenterologist and obesity medicine specialist at Stanford Medicine, shared, “The obesity rate of children is 22% with a prediction of having 30-50% of the population having obesity by 2030… A plant-based diet has actually been shown to help adults lose weight, reverse diabetes, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and promote insulin sensitivity.” She is using seed funding to research the effects on underrepresented youth of receiving 6 months of training in plant-based eating along with cookbooks and gift cards specifically designed for use at farmer’s markets.

Stanford Chef Andrew Mayne describes menu items featuring many plants grown on the Farm. Photo credit: Omar Navarro.

Stanford Chef Andrew Mayne led a culinary team in preparing a plant-based buffet for the summit. A standout item for many guests was the Japanese sweet potato and parsnip salad with shredded golden beet and farro. Red cabbage sauerkraut with caraway seeds provided fitting fuel for the afternoon panel on the gut microbiome, during which experts from the Sonnenburg lab at Stanford shared that eating plants and fermented foods showed promise in reducing many health problems, including possibly even anxiety.   

The Stanford Food Summit host, Christopher Gardner, PhD, a nutrition scientist and professor of medicine at Stanford, explained that the lunch menu at the conference was not exclusively made of plants. “Vegan is not our definition of plant-based. It’s a way of eating that emphasizes mainly plant-based foods. Meat and dairy products may be occasionally present in meals and snacks but take a supplementary role, rather than star.”

One of the buffet items was a Washington mussel and chickpea salad with radishes and a dill dressing. Michelle Tigchelaar, PhD, a researcher at Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, shared that eating farmed bivalves (mussels, clams, and oysters) causes less greenhouse gas emissions than chicken, and far less than livestock. Zach Koehn, PhD, also from the Doerr School, shared another sustainable, highly nutritious source of protein available in most supermarkets: canned mackerel. “One good thing about that is that it doesn’t take any preparation. You can just make a noodle dish, put it on top, and then find a big chunk of veggies to put on top.”

For videos of the conference, visit the Stanford Food Summit YouTube playlist.