Have you seen the headlines? We are constantly waking up to news headlines about food and nutrition, but have you seen these headlines about the benefits of a plant-based diet?
“Plant-based diets are better for you, new study finds. Here are the health benefits” – Fortune
“Plant-based diet’s health benefits play big role in its popularity during pandemic” – Washington Post
“Eating a more plant-based diet can add years to your life, study finds” – Good Morning America
So, are they true? Is a plant-based diet “healthier” for you than an omnivore diet? Let’s take a look at the top health benefits of eating a mostly or completely plant-based diet.
What Exactly Is a Plant-based Diet
A plant-based diet is a vibrant approach to eating that centers around incorporating a wide variety of plant-derived foods. Rather than highlighting animal proteins on the plate, a plant-forward diet aims to focus on a wide variety of colorful, health-promoting plant foods. This eating pattern can absolutely still be inclusive to all food preferences.
Eating a plant-based diet encourages individuals to primarily consume fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes, while still having some flexibility in occasional intake of animal products, if desired. If we had to quantify how many plant foods it takes to be considered “plant-based”, technically a plant-based eater is consuming at least two-thirds of their overall food intake as plants. Most often we’ll find those who consider themselves plant-based to be eating at least three-quarters of their plate as plants, if not more.
The plant-forward approach is not a trendy diet nor a short-term “fix” for any health problems. It’s ever-flowing and adapting to one’s lifestyle. It typically caters to individuals who seek to either improve their overall well-being, protect the environment, support animal welfare, or a combination of these values without feeling confined by rigid dietary restrictions. Embracing a plant-based diet allows us to savor the delicious abundance of plant foods while taking positive steps towards a healthier, greener, and more compassionate lifestyle.
Top Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
No one food can make you “healthy”, just like no one food can make you “unhealthy.” But, there is an overall eating pattern that can help you improve your overall wellbeing. No surprise that it’s a plant-forward diet of mostly whole and minimally processed plant-derived foods.
One exciting perk of eating a plant-based diet is its incredible impact on cholesterol levels. Numerous studies demonstrate the cholesterol-lowering benefits of eating mostly plant foods. Saturated fat (considered the “bad” fat) is mostly found in animal products such as fatty meats, the skin of poultry, egg yolks, and dairy products. Naturally, a plant-forward diet significantly reduces one’s intake of saturated fats and cholesterol found in these animal products. The consumption of plant-derived unsaturated fats are also increased, known to benefit cardiovascular health. The high fiber content of plant-based foods also aids in lowering both total and LDL cholesterol levels (known as the “bad” cholesterol), while phytochemicals and antioxidants contribute to improved cardiovascular health. This 2017 study that reviewed 49 research studies states that a moderate to low-fat plant-based diet can reduce LDL cholesterol levels by 15 to 30 percent.
Reduces Blood Pressure
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects over 46% of the United States’ population. Eating more plant foods can also lead to improved blood pressure levels. When consuming mostly whole and minimally-processed plant foods, sodium is reduced and potassium is increased. This ideal combination is exactly what your blood vessels want to improve flexibility, easing the pressure on your ticker. A study on over 11,000 British men and women found that the vegans had the lowest blood pressure readings. The omnivorous men (those who eat meat and plants) were 2.5 times more likely to have high blood pressure than the vegan men. I also want to point out that many of the studies done on plant-based diets include populations who cook mostly at home where sodium is also reduced.
Manages Blood Sugar Levels
Anyone who has seen the documentary Forks Over Knives has heard the exciting news that a whole food plant-based diet can reverse type 2 diabetes. While not everyone can subscribe to the more diligent whole-foods-only approach, eating the majority of your foods as whole or minimally processed as possible still shows benefit to preventing and managing type 2 diabetes. Eating a diet rich in fiber, magnesium, antioxidants, unsaturated fats, and nutrient-dense carbohydrates is shown to improve insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake while decreasing markers of inflammation.
Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response to injury, infection, or stress. Today, we see individuals with chronic inflammation from stressful lifestyles and poor nutrition habits. Chronic inflammation leads to greater risk for disease, cancer, and illness. Foods that are known to help reduce inflammation in the body include fiber, prebiotics, probiotics, antioxidants , and omega-3 fatty acids. Guess what? These anti-inflammatory foods are all abundant in a plant-based diet. A review of studies compared levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a blood biomarker of inflammation, in vegan and vegetarian diets (both falling under the “plant-based” umbrella) to an omnivorous diet across different cultures. It concluded those eating a plant-based diet had lower CRP levels compared to omnivores, indicating lower levels of inflammation.
Supports a Healthy Immune System
Picture this: colorful berries, vibrant greens, and hearty legumes teaming up to fortify your immune warriors. By now we know a well-planned plant-based diet is rich in key vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These are all necessary for reinforcing the body’s defense mechanisms. While animal proteins also contain a variety of minerals, they are very low in antioxidants. There are thousands of different antioxidants that play a role in supporting the immune system. The more variety of plant-foods consumed, the more variety of antioxidants the body receives to protect from disease and illness.
Supports Optimal Digestive Health
An average of only 7% of American adults meet the daily recommendation for fiber intake, according to this 2021 finding. That might be why constipation is the most common gastrointestinal (GI) issue in Americans, leading about 2.5 million of them to the doctors annually. Fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods. It plays a vital role in one’s digestive health from making things move smoothly through the GI tract to making your time on the toilet easier. A diet rich in fiber can decrease episodes of constipation and diarrhea, improve the gut microbiome, and may reduce the risk of Inflammatory Bowel Disease and colon cancer.
Decreased Risk for Disease
Colon cancer isn’t the only ailment that plants can keep at bay. A plant-based diet of mostly whole foods is shown to decrease risk for cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, mental health illnesses, and other cancers.
Lowered Risk of Mood-related Disorders
While mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression are mutli-facitated, research does emphasize how our daily habits can help better manage the symptoms. The Physicians Committee describes how depression can often feel worse due to inflammation in the body that trickles up to the brain. At this point, we know a diet rich in whole plant foods helps reduce inflammation, but this eating pattern is also beneficial to our gut health.
Our gut microbes (the living bacteria creating a cozy environment in your large intestine) also produce dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters produced in the gut are sent up to the brain to alleviate poor mood and inflammation. Gut microbes thrive off of a diverse, fiber-rich diet. The research on how the gut microbiome impacts our mental health is continually growing. Promising studies indicate a positive relationship between a high-quality plant-forward diet and protection against mental health illnesses.
Is a Plant-Based Diet Right For You?
If you are currently experiencing any of the health conditions listed above, you may want to consider a plant-based diet. Eating plant-based does not have to be “all-or-nothing” nor does it have to happen overnight. It is important that your transition to a plant-based diet works for you, your preferences, and your lifestyle. Get started eating more plants with these simple tips. If you’re curious about how a plant-based diet can help you, let’s chat.