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10 Proven Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Written by Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD

Published on September 27, 2021

Plant-based diets, such as vegan and vegetarian, have become wildly popular over the past few years. Wondering why so many people have chosen to adopt this way of eating? One reason is that there are proven health benefits behind it.

10 Proven Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Photo credit: iStock.com/Valentinrussanov

Most of us know at least one person who has adopted a plant-based diet.

While the definition varies, this could mean a vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian diet that minimizes or excludes animal-derived products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.

Instead, a plant-based diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

One of the main reasons many people are swapping out animal products for plant-based ones is to help improve their health.

Plant-based diets may have only recently gained the spotlight, but decades of science show that eating more plants offers numerous perks to your health, particularly when you emphasize whole, minimally-processed options.

Below are ten proven health benefits of eating a plant-based diet that may have you considering making the switch.

1. May Help Support Your Heart Health

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States and around the world for men, women, and individuals of most ethnic and racial backgrounds. One American dies of heart disease every 36 seconds.

While things like genetic predisposition and physical activity can all be contributing factors to heart disease risk, nutrition is also a major player.

The western diet pattern, characterized by a heavy intake of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar primarily from ultra-processed and animal-derived foods, can increase susceptibility to heart disease.

Specifically, this way of eating can raise your risk of atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.

On the other hand, a predominantly plant-based approach can have the opposite effect.

Whole and minimally processed plant foods are rich in unsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support heart health.

While saturated fat in moderation isn’t necessarily the end-all-be-all enemy for your heart, some studies have found that replacing it with unsaturated fat and complex carbohydrates from plant foods is better for your ticker.

Additionally, in the 2020 “SWAP-MEAT” (Study With Appetizing Plantfood-Meat Eating Alternatives Trial) study, researchers found that heart disease risk factors were reduced when participants replaced animal products with plant ones.

One of these is TMAO, or trimethylamine-N-oxide, a molecule linked to heart disease that’s made in your body when you eat carnitine, a non-essential amino acid in meat and fish.

2. May Have Anti-Cancer Benefits

Cancer is, unfortunately, another widespread disease. The most common types include breast, lung, prostate, colon, pancreas, and skin cancer.

Fueling your body with optimal nutrition is a good preventive practice to lower your risk of getting and dying from certain cancers.

Practicing a whole-foods, plant-based diet, and substituting plant-based protein in place of animal protein, is associated with a reduced overall risk for cancer.

Plant-based diets may even help delay the need for conventional treatment and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.

This, again, has a lot to do with its high-fiber nature and the antioxidants found in plant foods, like lycopene and beta carotene.

Plus, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale are rich in sulfur-containing compounds known to have anti-cancer properties.

What’s more, the World Health Organization has categorized processed meats as carcinogens and red meats as probable carcinogens.

Cooking meat at high temperatures, as is often the case in frying and grilling, creates toxic compounds called heterocyclic amines.

Additionally, studies have found that high consumption of full-fat dairy products may be associated with a higher risk for breast and prostate cancers.

3. May Promote Healthy, Sustainable Weight Loss

Dieting is a cyclical trend, with new approaches to quick weight loss popping up all the time.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of fad diet programs are restrictive and don’t result in long-term, sustainable weight loss that most dieters are ultimately seeking.

What’s more effective for long-term weight loss are diet patterns that emphasize healthy eating habits as a lifestyle and are rich in whole plant foods.

Low-fat plant-based diets have been proven effective for treating overweight and obesity, even when compared to common “heart-healthy” diets like that of the National Cholesterol Education Program.

In a 2016 meta-analysis of 12 randomized, controlled trials, researchers concluded that individuals following a vegetarian diet were more successful in losing weight than non-vegetarians.

Furthermore, healthy vegan diets were even more helpful in achieving weight loss goals. Why is this?

Plant foods are high in fiber, which is naturally satiating and can help prevent overeating.

Plus, except for things like avocados and coconut oil, plants tend to be less calorically dense than animal-derived foods.

4. May Help Improve Blood Sugar Control

While diets high in added sugar from ultra-processed foods can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes, high saturated fat consumption is also a factor.

Saturated fat intake may be more damaging to your liver than simple sugars, contributing to insulin resistance.

Saturated fat is primarily found in animal products like meat, dairy, fish, and eggs.

Carbohydrates are digested into glucose molecules and sent to your bloodstream. Normally, your insulin acts as a key to allow the glucose to enter your cells for energy.

However, when there’s too much saturated fat circulating in your blood, this can prevent insulin from doing its job very well, leaving more glucose in your blood as well as worsened insulin sensitivity.

On the other hand, a 2017 review found that a healthy plant-based diet can reduce insulin resistance, which may help prevent, manage, and possibly even reverse some cases of type 2 diabetes.

A 2018 review also concluded that eating a plant-based diet can reduce hemoglobin A1c, an indicator of long-term glucose control, better than a conventional omnivorous diet.

5. May Offer Anti-Inflammatory Benefits

The word “metaflammation” was created to describe chronic metabolic inflammation that results from overnutrition with a nutrient-poor western diet, combined with a sedentary lifestyle.

Replacing a western diet pattern high in animal-derived foods with a plant-based diet may help improve certain inflammatory conditions.

For instance, a 2015 study found that a whole-food, plant-based diet was beneficial for reducing joint pain among people with osteoarthritis.

Unmanaged inflammation is a contributing factor to various chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancers.

Following a vegan diet was shown to improve an inflammatory biomarker called C-reactive protein (CRP) among participants in a 2018 randomized controlled trial.

Even a vegetarian diet that includes some animal products has similar effects on CRP.

6. May Help Support Reproductive Health

A plant-based diet may also help support reproductive health in terms of reproductive cancers and fertility, especially when started at a young age.

Some research has found that men who consume a lot of dairy starting in adolescence have a three-fold higher risk for advanced prostate cancer later in life.

And it’s not just men. A 2020 meta-analysis found that women who drink at least one glass of whole dairy milk daily have a three-fold greater risk for ovarian cancer.

As for fertility, some research has found that diets high in dairy and meat may be associated with sexual problems in men.

And in a 2014 comparative study of 189 men aged 18–22 years, researchers found an inverse relationship between processed meat intake and total sperm count.

Fortunately, researchers have also found that ditching animal products and switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet can help improve related issues like erectile dysfunction.

Eating more healthy plant foods has also been observed to offer a therapeutic effect on menstrual cramps and menopause symptoms for some women.

7. May Protect Your Brain Health

Neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s dementia and cognitive decline are often assumed to be a regular part of getting older.

While many factors are involved, the good news is that nutrition can play a protective role in your brain, and a plant-based diet may have extra benefits.

In fact, regular consumption of meat, eggs, and high-fat dairy were determined to be the most significant diet-related contributors to Alzheimer’s risk in a 2016 review. Need evidence?

The Rush University Memory and Aging Project, published in 2015, followed older adults aged 58–98 for 4.5 years.

They found that those who ate a plant-based diet with limited salt, meat, and dairy experienced a 53% lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s.

What’s more impressive is that the plant-based eaters were found to have brain function equal to someone 7.5 years younger than them.

Plus, people who mainly ate plants but weren’t quite as strict about it still saw a 35% risk reduction of Alzheimer’s compared to people who ate more animal products.

In a 2020 study among 435 Iranian women, researchers found that a healthy plant-based diet was inversely associated with psychological disorders.

Also, unhealthy plant foods (like vegan junk food and more processed, packaged products) were associated with a higher risk for depression and obesity.

Some of the nutrients responsible for the brain-protective properties of plants include vitamin K, lutein, beta carotene, and folate, antioxidants, and unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids.

8. May Promote a Healthy Gut

There’s a well-established bidirectional relationship between gut health and overall health. It means that if you want to improve health outcomes, your digestive tract is a good place to start.

A plant-based diet can provide many nutrients that can help maintain a good gut bacteria balance, while a western diet pattern can promote gut dysbiosis.

Interestingly, a 2014 review found that the guts of people who follow a vegan diet tend to have fewer disease-causing organisms called pathobionts, and more health-protective bacteria, compared to omnivores.

Additionally, a 2020 review also concluded that while a western diet tends to be pro-inflammatory and associated with irritable bowel disease development and relapse, a plant-based diet may have the opposite effect on gut health.

9. May Offer Immune-Boosting Benefits

We’re all looking for ways to support our body’s natural immune defense year-round. One of the best ways to do this is by fueling your body with a healthy plant-based diet.

On the other hand, a western diet pattern may not be doing your immune system any favors.

Plants are naturally rich in antioxidants, compounds that help fight off free radicals that cause oxidative damage to our cells.

Fruits and vegetables are especially high in vitamin C, an antioxidant known to support the innate and adaptive immune system.

They’re also rich in fiber, which helps support immunity by positively altering your gut microbiome.

This has been studied more recently in terms of how fibrous plant-based diets can promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria that may help improve COVID-19 outcomes.

10. May Extend Your Longevity

Eating a predominantly plant-based diet is a commonality in areas called the Blue Zones, regions around the world where much of the population regularly lives to be 100 years old.

What’s even more remarkable is that the people who live this long in these areas remain essentially free from the chronic diseases that plague the rest of us.

Meat, eggs, fish, and dairy products are eaten rarely, if at all in, the Blue Zones. Instead, the diet in these areas is based on things like sweet potatoes, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and olive oil.

Of course, a plant-based diet isn’t an automatic ticket into the centenarian club.

People of the Blue Zones also regularly practice other healthy habits that promote social and spiritual connections and emotional well-being.

However, eating an abundance of whole plant foods probably isn’t going to harm your odds either.

How to Get Started with Plant-Based Diet

Adopting a plant-based diet can look different for everyone, and that’s okay.

The most important part is that it makes sense for your lifestyle, aligns with your needs, and is nutritionally sound.

Here are a few ideas to help get you started:

  • Replace processed red meat products, like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs, with plant-based protein like tofu, tempeh, or seitan.
  • Substitute non-dairy alternatives, like soy, almond, or oat milk, where you usually use cow’s milk, like coffee, cereal, soups, and baked goods.
  • Use crumbled extra-firm tofu in place of eggs when making a veggie-packed breakfast scramble. Flavor tofu with turmeric, nutritional yeast, or garlic and onion powder.
  • In place of ground meat, try beans, lentils, and walnuts, or crumbled tempeh.
  • Replace beef and chicken broth with vegetable broth for sauteing, cooking rice, and making soups.
  • Include fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal. Fruits make great side dishes and desserts. Veggies can be eaten raw, steamed, roasted, sauteed, or boiled and included in soups, salads, casseroles, stir fry, and burritos.
  • Make veggie burger patties using things like beans or lentils, mushrooms, oats, and various herbs and spices.
  • Experiment with smoothies, using various frozen fruits, leafy greens, flax or chia seeds, non-dairy milk, and pitted dates to incorporate even more plants into your day.
  • Instead of eggs for things like cookies, cakes, and waffles, try mixing one tablespoon of ground flax seeds with three tablespoons of water to make the equivalent of one egg.

The Bottom Line

Nutrition is a key component in determining both your short and long-term health outcomes, and we have multiple opportunities every day to make food choices that support them.

Plant-based diet patterns, based primarily on whole and minimally processed foods, have been shown to support heart, brain, gut, and reproductive health, promote a healthy weight and immune system, and possibly even increase your odds of enjoying a longer lifespan.

You can make small changes toward adopting a plant-based diet for your health today simply by swapping out a few of your go-to animal products with plant-based alternatives.

Speak with a registered dietitian if you have questions about designing a healthy plant-based diet for you.

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