Benefits of a plant-based diet

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

There are many benefits of a plant-based diet. If you are therefore wondering if this style of eating is right for you, you’ve come to the right place! In this blog post we explore whether plant-based eating is worthy of the hype. What are the true benefits of a plant-based diet? Can going plant-based improve health outcomes? Is it the right choice for you? Read on for answers to these questions, and so much more.

What Is a Plant-based Diet?

Before we discuss the benefits of a plant-based diet, let’s start by learning what one is. Most simply, a plant-based diet emphasizes and increases the intake of plants and plant products such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. There are a variety of different eating styles that are considered plant-based. Here are a few of the most popular ones:

  • Veganism: complete avoidance of all animal products
  • Vegetarianism: avoidance of all meat products and byproducts
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarianism: includes dairy and eggs, but avoids meat, fish and poultry
  • Pescatarianism: includes fish but no other meat or poultry
  • Flexitarianism: includes a small amount of meat but places a high emphasis on plant products

Typically, following a plant-based diet means increasing the intake of minimally processed plant foods, and reducing the intake of packaged, processed or ready-made foods. Going plant-based does not necessarily mean that you have to cook everything yourself all the time. However, it may change what or how often you do cook.

The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Weight Control

One benefit of a plant-based diet is weight control and in fact, people following a plant-based approach are shown to have more stable weight over time. There are a few reasons why this may be true. First, plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are typically higher in fiber, which keeps you feeling full longer. In addition, the high volume of many plant-based foods can lead to eating less. The caloric density of plant-based foods is also typically lower than highly processed foods. Therefore plant-based snacks often have fewer calories than other snacks.

Decreased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Another benefit of a plant-based diet is that it may help decrease the risk for cardiovascular disease. Why is this true? Nutritional choices impact heart health in many ways, so changing some aspects of your diet may lead to improved heart health. Meanwhile plant-based diets are typically higher in unsaturated fats and lower in sodium. They are also typically lower in cholesterol, added sugar, refined carbohydrates, sweetened beverages and processed meats. These components contribute to poor cardiac health, and can increase risk for heart attack and stroke. Therefore a diet that is plant-based and avoids these dietary traps can lead to improved cardiovascular health.

Improved Blood Pressure

Eating a plant-based diet often coincides with lowered blood pressure. Why is this the case? Plant-based diets are generally higher in Vitamin C, Potassium and polyphenol, and higher intake of these micronutrients may help with lowering blood pressure. This is yet another benefit of adopting a plant-based diet. Also worth noting: Reduction in blood pressure from a plant-based diet was more pronounced in those with diagnosed high blood pressure (hypertension). Let’s take a look at how the specific micronutrients we mention above help reduce blood pressure:

  • Vitamin C

Higher intake of Vitamin C may help to lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in hypertensive patients. This is due to the effect that Vitamin C has on restoring endothelial function in patients with coronary artery disease. Sources of Vitamin C include red bell peppers, oranges, kiwis and broccoli.

  • Potassium

Intake of Potassium from plant-based foods may be helpful for lowering blood pressure. Potassium improves blood flow through tissues by creating less resistance. Potassium also has a stimulatory effect on an enzyme called “sodium-potassium ATPase.” This is an enzyme responsible for balancing out the concentration of Sodium and Potassium in our cells. Potassium stimulates this enzyme to hyper-polarize it and lower Calcium concentrations. This helps to improve blood flow through blood vessels and generates less resistance in blood flow, thereby lowering blood pressure.

  • Polyphenols

Polyphenols are a class of compounds present in plant foods. These compounds work indirectly as antioxidants in the body to help reduce and combat inflammation from free radicals. Studies show that a diet higher in polyphenol-rich foods may link to decreases in blood pressure. Although polyphenols are not direct antioxidants, they help maintain and support blood vessel linings and function to reduce blood pressure.

An increased intake of polyphenol-rich foods shows decreases in blood pressure. This is relative to an increase in vasomotion (contraction and relaxation of vascular smooth muscle). Foods that are of note in the studies include tea, cocoa/chocolate and beetroot juice.

Healthy Cholesterol Levels

Yet another benefit of a plant-based diet is that it can help keep cholesterol at a healthy level. Cholesterol is a waxy substance made by the liver that helps build cells plus make vitamins and other hormones. The liver produces all the cholesterol we need. Meanwhile dietary cholesterol comes from animal products like meat, dairy products and eggs. Consuming too much dietary cholesterol can impact the amount of cholesterol in our bodies, which can increase the risk of heart problems and/or stroke.

If you have your bloodwork done annually (which you should), your doctor will examine your cholesterol lab values. There are a few different types of cholesterol to consider. There is LDL (low density lipoprotein), HDL (high density lipoprotein) and TG (triglycerides). These three numbers affect the total cholesterol value. You may hear LDL and HDL referred to as “bad cholesterol” and “good cholesterol” respectively.

Types of Cholesterol

  • LDL cholesterol is a recommended lab value to keep low, to prevent buildup around the arterial walls. If there is too much buildup of LDL in the blood vessels, it can cause the arteries to narrow. Narrowed arteries can lead to high blood pressure, heart issues, and increased risk of stroke.
  • HDL (or “good”) cholesterol serves as a cardio-protective factor, meaning it’s a cholesterol lab value that shows cardiac benefits when it is higher. HDL contributes to heart health by carrying away any extra LDL particles from the arteries, and returning them back to the liver.

Plant-based diet patterns have shown to help reduce levels of total cholesterol and reduce LDL cholesterol. Why is this so? For starters, plant-based diets are typically higher in unsaturated fatty acids in comparison to omnivorous (plant and animal) diets. Plant-based diets are also typically lower in saturated fats, cholesterol and total fat. Meanwhile studies have shown that a diet reduced in fat leads to lower absorption rates of fat and dietary cholesterol, which also leads to decreased levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood.

Decreased Risk of Certain Types of Cancers

A plant-based diet may be helpful for lowering your risk of developing certain types of cancers. How? A plant-based diet can reduce processed meat intake, and can simultaneously increase the intake of phytochemicals. It may also help to increase intake of fiber and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. While no one diet will guarantee that you won’t develop cancer, having a diet higher in plant-based foods can help lower your risk. Let’s take a more in-depth look at how some of these factors impact cancer risk:

  • Processed Meat Intake

Having a diet high in processed meat may increase your risk for certain types of cancers like colon and esophageal. This is due to the chemical preservatives typically found in meat items such as deli meats, hot dogs and bacon. In addition, choosing a plant-based protein instead of animal protein can help to reduce intake of saturated fats, which can also reduce your risk of certain types of cancers.

  • Increased Intake of Phytochemicals

Having a diet higher in plant-based foods increases the intake of certain compounds called “phytochemicals.” Phytochemicals work in a somewhat similar fashion to polyphenols and in fact, polyphenols are a category of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals can be found in vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, nuts and seeds and may help prevent chronic diseases, including cancer. Potential benefits of phytochemicals include strengthened immune system, reduced inflammation, hormonal regulation, decreased DNA damage and supported DNA repair. By increasing the amount of plant-based foods in your diet, your intake of immune-supporting and cancer risk-reducing phytochemicals increases.

  • Increased intake of Vitamins and Minerals

A varied plant-based diet can help increase the amount of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) consumed. While these nutrients may not be required in high amounts, they have a major impact on overall health and well-being. Micronutrients have an impact on enzyme production, hormones and growth and development. Meanwhile a deficiency in vitamins and minerals can leave the immune system more susceptible to getting sick. Of course if the immune system is down, infection and disease risk can go up. By incorporating a balanced and varied plant-based diet, you can ensure your immune system is getting the support it needs. 

  • Fiber

A plant-based diet can also increase your intake of fiber, since a diet rich in unprocessed and whole fruits, vegetables and whole grains is typically higher in fiber. Meanwhile higher fiber intake has an indirect connection to lowering cancer risk. Fiber helps keep you full for longer, which reduces caloric intake and helps to stabilize weight, which can potentially help reduce cancer risk.

Lowered Risk of Diabetes

Studies have suggested that following a plant-based diet may help prevent and manage Type 2 Diabetes. Genetics, environment, lifestyle and diet all play a role in the development of Type 2 Diabetes. While some of those factors are not modifiable, some of them – such as diet and lifestyle – are often within our control.

A diet high in saturated fats, added sugars, refined carbohydrates, fast foods and calorie-dense foods is thought to have a large influence on the development of Type 2 Diabetes. On the other hand, a plant-based diet high in whole, unprocessed foods, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes has been found to be protective against diabetes. There are certain foods that may be more helpful in the prevention of Type 2 Diabetes such as root vegetables, leafy greens, blueberries, grapes and apples. All of these foods contain phytochemicals and fiber and are great sources of different vitamins and minerals.

Insulin Resistance

Dietary choices are a major contributor to insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas to help lower blood sugar in the body. Insulin works in a similar manner to a key opening a door to let someone inside. Blood sugar (glucose) travels around in the bloodstream, and insulin is the key to getting the glucose inside the cell. In Type 2 Diabetes, the body’s cells may not be as sensitive to the insulin being made. This keeps the glucose in the bloodstream and deprives the cells of the energy needed to survive.

By incorporating a variety of different plant-based foods in the diet, the body’s sensitivity to insulin increases. With an increase in insulin sensitivity, the body’s cells are better able to utilize glucose (blood sugar) and take it out of the blood stream. 

How to Eat Plant-Based in a Healthy Way

Ready to reap all the benefits of a plant-based diet? You don’t need to go full vegetarian or vegan to get the best health benefits. Start by focusing on eating more of the right plants. For example, white rice could be part of a plant-based diet, but it doesn’t provide many health benefits. A better option would be a whole grain like quinoa, farro, or barley. Also focus on eliminating unhealthy foods, and moderating your intake of healthier animal products.

Below are ways to make your eating habits more plant-based:

  • Eat lots of vegetables – Fill your plate at lunch and dinner with at least half vegetables.
  • Change the way you think about meat – Use meat as a side dish rather than the main course. Choose lean, low fat (or healthy fat) types of meat such as white meat chicken or fish. 
  • Choose healthy fats – Opt for olive oil, olives, nuts and nut butters, and avocados for some increased unsaturated fat in your diet.
  • Cook vegetarian one night a week – Create your own meatless meal using beans, whole grains and vegetables. Don’t be afraid to mix and match! Check out this blog post to see how to pair side dishes to make a complete protein.
  • Add whole grains into your breakfast – Try oatmeal, quinoa, or barley and add some nuts or seeds and fruits.
  • Go for greens every day – Eat leafy greens every day such as spinach, kale, or collard greens. 
  • Eat fruit for dessert or snacks – Make sure you are enjoying fresh fruit in season every day! A sweet orange, juicy melon, or succulent mango can help satisfy that sweet tooth while providing loads of nutrition!

Is there some middle ground between the way I eat now and going plant based?

Yes! The concept of going plant-based means there is a higher intake of plant-based foods in comparison to animal-based products. Take a moment to think about your current eating patterns. Are they high in colorful fruits and vegetables? Are there many meals where you get fast food? What does your typical dinner plate look like? What kinds of foods are in your cart at the grocery store?

If you feel that there is room for more colors, plant-based foods and whole grains in your diet, start small. Incorporate one plant-based snack or one meal each day, and see how you feel. You may find that a small change can make all the difference.   

How do I know if going plant-based is right for me?

If you are not sure if going plant based is right for you, try it out! See what you think. Try some new sources of protein like edamame, beans or tempeh. Or you could even just try changing the amount of different foods on your plate. (For example: make the meat a side dish to your meal rather than the focus.) Another way to try going plant-based is by making one night a week “meatless.”

You don’t necessarily need to eliminate or significantly reduce all animal products in your diet. Instead, redefine what “plant-based” means. To go plant-based simply means there is a higher emphasis on plant-based foods in the diet.

If you are still not sure if plant-based is for you, or if you need ideas on how to incorporate more plant-based food in your diet, consider meeting with one of our Registered Dietitians. Our nutrition experts understand the plant-based diet and can provide nutrition counseling, education and behavior modification techniques to get you on your way to healthier eating! We also have an easy-to-use meal planner that includes a plant based option, making cooking a breeze. 

If you’d like to learn more about a plant based diet, set an appointment with one of our dietitians at Anderson’s Nutrition.