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11 Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

How popular are plant-based foods these days? If fast food restaurant menus and grocery store aisles are any indications, they may be the hottest food category around. Millions of health-conscious people around the world are incorporating plant-based diets into their lifestyle, and with plenty of good reasons.

A plant-based diet offers far-reaching benefits to anyone who decides to embrace a lifestyle that largely excludes food products derived from animals. From managing your weight to promoting heart health, a plant-based diet not only promotes your personal well-being but the planet’s as well.

With so many benefits encompassing physical health and mental well-being, a plant-based diet can be a bona fide life-changing practice. But making abrupt and significant changes to your diet and eating habits can have dramatic effects, so it is important to know what you are getting into. Read on to learn the benefits of a plant-based diet, why, and how you can make the switch without doing more harm than good.

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New to Plant-Based Dieting? Here’s the Skinny

The notion that fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy diet is nothing new. Generations of frustrated parents have beseeched their children to eat more veggies with mixed results. As it turns out, those seemingly defiant kids may have been listening after all. Recent studies have shown a remarkable rise in the popularity of plant-based diets, including these rather surprising figures:

  • In the U.S. alone, there are nearly 10 million people who maintain strict vegan diets
  • This figure represents a 3,000 percent increase from 2004
  • Sales of plant-based foods (including the red-hot faux meat industry) grew by 27% in 2020 alone

These statistics alone suggest that plant-based diets are not a passing fad, and they are most certainly here to stay.

So what is meant by the term plant-based diet? As the name infers, a plant-based diet includes the following naturally occurring foods:

  • Fresh produce
  • Whole grains
  • Beans and legumes
  • Seeds
  • Nuts

As with any diet or eating regimen, the most important thing to consider is whether it will provide you with complete nutrition to satisfy your body’s specific needs.

Things to Consider when Switching Over

Strictly speaking, a plant-based diet is not necessarily one that completely excludes any form of meat or dairy products whatsoever. However, it is an eating regimen that emphasizes foods from plant sources more than others. Plant-based diets come in various forms, including:

  • A Mediterranean plant-based diet is based on plant-based foods but also includes cheese, eggs, fish, and poultry
  • Within the vegetarian sphere, there are varying degrees ranging from diets that include eggs and dairy foods to those that allow seafood but not meat or poultry, to vegan, which strictly excludes any animal-derived foods

Once the choice as to the particular type of plant-based diet has been made, modifications to your eating habits will be your next focus, and depending on what foods you are accustomed to eating, these dietary changes can range from minor to substantial. Here are a few tips to make the transition to a plant-based diet go smoother:

  • Needless to say, the consumption of vegetables must be steadily increased (to start off, half of your meals should consist of vegetables)
  • At the same time, servings of meat should be reduced significantly (for example, move from entrée portions to appetizer portions)
  • Introduce whole grains into your diet, ideally with breakfast
  • Eliminate sweets and substitute various fruits for dessert

Switching to a plant-based diet is a process requiring a measured approach to increasing intake of foods sourced from plants while reducing (if not eliminating):

  • Animal products
  • Fatty oils
  • Sweets

Success will not happen overnight, but the benefits will last a lifetime.

11 Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Volumes have been written about the many benefits of a plant-based diet, but the following 11 are particularly noteworthy.

Reduces Inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s response to things that pose a threat or have the potential to cause sickness. These include:

  • Allergens
  • Toxins
  • Bacteria

But while inflammation is a natural defense mechanism to prevent injury or illness, when it exists in excess, inflammation can be harmful to your health, aggravating certain medical conditions and potentially increasing the risk of certain forms of cancer.

The many nutrients in plants not only bolster the body’s immune system (more on this later) but also contribute to lowering the occurrences and severity of inflammation through:

  • Phytochemicals and antioxidants found in plants can neutralize many of the toxins, bacteria, and other substances that can trigger bouts of inflammation
  • By eradicating harmful free radicals from your body, a plant-based diet can help you reduce the potentially life-threatening effects of inflammation

While eating a plant-based diet will not completely cure an inflammatory condition, it can eliminate some of the triggers that cause inflammation to recur.

Lowers Blood Pressure

One of the leading risk factors contributing to a wide range of health problems is high blood pressure or hypertension. Among the conditions linked to high blood pressure are:

  • Stroke
  • Type-2 diabetes
  • Various forms of heart disease

Fortunately, lifestyle changes can dramatically impact the factors that contribute to high blood pressure, and the chief among these is adopting a plant-based diet. Medical studies have shown a positive link between eating plant-based foods and lowering one’s blood pressure. These encouraging findings include:

  • People who adhere to a plant-based diet have a lower blood pressure than those who eat an omnivorous (plant and animal-based foods) diet
  • People who eat plant-based foods regularly are 34% less likely to suffer from high blood pressure than those who do not

Along the same vein (no pun intended), eating plant-based foods can promote heart health by reducing harmful substances like saturated fats (commonly found in meat products) from your diet. Studies have shown that a plant-based diet can reduce an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease by 16 percent and the risk of dying from this condition by 31 percent.

Weight Management

Obesity is a widespread issue that has been linked to a host of health problems, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

To make matters worse, these medical conditions, in turn, can increase the risk of a multitude of related or derivative health issues, some of which can become chronic, debilitating, or even life-threatening.

There is mounting evidence that a plant-based diet is not only an effective tool in managing your weight (e.g., preventing weight gain) but can also contribute directly to losing unwanted weight. Some of these findings include:

  • Even without an exercise regimen, a plant-based diet can lead to a weight loss of one pound per week in some people
  • Evidence suggests that more calories are burned off after plant-based meals than non-plant-based foods (where the calories are instead stored as fat)
  • In general, people who have plant-based diets tend to be slimmer than their non-plant-based diet counterparts

It is worth noting that proper nutrition is crucial regardless of the diet type or format. Here too, there is data showing that properly structured plant-based diets can be nutrient-dense and provide proper subsistence for most people.

Lowers the Risk of Diabetes

Diabetes is a family of medical conditions in which the body cannot properly process nor maintain safe blood glucose (blood sugars) levels. Diabetes affects an estimated 34 million people in the U.S. alone, and the most common form is known as type-2 diabetes. Most forms of diabetes can be managed through medication and other medical interventions, but if left unchecked, this illness can lead to much more severe health conditions including, heart disease and stroke.

Studies have shown that among its many benefits, a plant-based diet can lower the risk of diabetes and even aid in the management of its key contributory factors. Here are some of the ways that eating plant-based foods can combat diabetes:

  • A plant-based diet can improve insulin sensitivity and lower insulin resistance
  • By contributing to weight loss and enhancing other metabolic factors, eating plant-based foods can reduce diabetic people’s reliance on medication
  • Studies suggest that overall, people who eat plant-based diets have less than half the occurrence of type-2 diabetes than those who do not

Diabetes is a serious medical condition affecting millions of people. But it can be successfully managed, and making a lifestyle change like adopting a plant-based diet could pay enormous dividends in the long run.

Reduces the Risk of Certain Cancers

According to the World Health Organization, up to one-third of all forms of cancer are preventable by managing factors within your control. One such factor is your diet, and there are studies showing that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of these specific forms of cancer:

  • Regular intake of legumes can lower the risk of colorectal cancer by 9 to 18 percent
  • Plant-based diets often include soy products which some studies have indicated may reduce the risk of breast cancer
  • Because they often exclude or dramatically reduce the amount of animal products consumed, plant-based diets can also lower the risk of prostate and colon cancers

Generally speaking, there is a correlation between regularly eating plant-based foods and lower occurrences of cancer. In fact, data suggests that people who adopt a plant-based diet may have up to a 15 percent less likelihood of developing cancer in their lifetime compared to people who do not have a plant-based diet.

Promotes Healthy Brain Function

Plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean and DASH variants have been shown to promote healthy brain function while reducing risk factors associated with medical conditions affecting the brain. Here are some recent findings:

  • A plant-based diet can reduce the risk of developing age-related brain diseases like dementia
  • Regularly eating plant-based foods can reduce the risk of diminished cognitive functions by up to 33 percent
  • Thanks to its anti-inflammatory qualities, a plant-based diet can help prevent the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s

Going the plant-based diet route can pay so many dividends in terms of your overall health and well-being, and perhaps in no more impactful way than by promoting brain function and preventing cognitive decline.

It is Environmentally Friendly

The significance of plant-based diets goes far beyond the well-being of individual people. On a much broader level, plant-based foods are more environmentally friendly than food products derived from animals. This is largely due to the tremendous impacts that farming activities, like raising livestock, have on the environment, such as:

  • Livestock, specifically cows, are a major source of methane gas (one of the primary pollutants known as greenhouse gases) that contributes to global warming
  • Manure from livestock is also a major source of greenhouse gases and thus contributes to the negative effects of climate change

It is worth noting that while plant-based foods do not have the same environmental impact as animal-derived foods, they too should be produced and processed in ecologically responsible and sustainable ways.

Can Lower Cholesterol

High cholesterol is a major contributor to serious health conditions like coronary artery disease and heart disease. Research shows that foods high in cholesterol (such as meat, dairy, and eggs) also increase the risk of heart attacks. In contrast, plant-based foods are cholesterol-free (as well as low in saturated fats), and, therefore, this type of diet is much healthier in the long run.

Furthermore, data suggests that not only is a plant-based diet free from cholesterol, but it can actually reduce cholesterol levels. Some of these findings include:

  • A plant-based diet can reduce total cholesterol levels compared to an omnivorous diet
  • LDL (i.e., bad cholesterol) levels can be reduced by as much as 15 to 30 percent by switching over to a plant-based diet
  • In particular, plant-based foods like oats, barley, nuts, and beans, are high in soluble fiber, which possesses known cholesterol-lowering qualities

While adopting a plant-based diet can represent a cosmic shift in eating habits for many people, the potential (life-saving) health benefits cannot be overstated and should not be ignored.

It Can Boost the Immune System

Among a host of other beneficial components, plant-based foods are rich in:

  • Antioxidants
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

Not only are these micronutrients necessary for maintaining general good health, but they also play a vital role in your body’s immune system – its ability to fight off sickness, infection, and disease.

And while foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, are generally good for your immune system, there are certain plant-based foods that truly give your body a boost of immunity, such as:

  • Broccoli
  • Citrus
  • Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Red peppers
  • Turmeric

By embracing a plant-based diet, you can bolster your body’s natural defenses and give it the nutritional boost it needs to ward off ailments of all kinds.

Can Lower Stroke Risk

According to medical research, a plant-based diet can reduce the overall risk of having a stroke. Compared to an omnivorous diet, an eating regimen built around plant-based foods was shown to result in a 10 percent reduction in stroke risk.

Specific plant-based foods identified as being the most effective in combating strokes include:

  • Whole grains
  • Leafy greens
  • Beans

While research into the link between stroke risk and plant-based food intake continues, current data suggests that this is yet another reason to switch to a plant-based diet.

It Can Lead to Longevity

The list of health benefits offered by a plant-based diet is long and extensive. But what it all boils down to is that people who eat plant-based foods are not only healthier, but as research shows, they also tend to live longer as well.

A major study funded by Bill Gates produced the following findings:

  • Diet is the most important factor relating to death and illness
  • There is a strong correlation between lower mortality rates and the regular consumption of plant-based foods
  • Blue Zones are areas in the world designated as having unusually high numbers of people living extraordinarily long lives, and one common lifestyle attribute has been the adoption of healthy practices, including plant-based dieting

This type of research validates on a larger scale the findings of medical studies relating to the many specific benefits of a plant-based diet. It also lends credence to the notion that people who consume primarily plant-based foods live healthier and longer lives.

Final Thoughts

With benefits ranging from preserving brain function to promoting longevity to even shedding a few pounds, there is any number of valid reasons to consider adopting a plant-based diet. By taking a measured and well-informed approach, the transition to a dietary regimen based on foods sourced from plants can be a smooth and rewarding one.