The Health Benefits of Plant-Based Diets

By Dr. A. Peraino, Internist and AMEC member

Diets higher in plant-based foods are one of the most powerful steps you can take to improve your health, improve energy levels, and prevent chronic disease. But what does it really mean to follow a plant-based diet, and do you need to eliminate all animal products? A plant-based diet focuses on the quality of plant foods, with the goal of reducing the consumption of animal foods–meat, dairy, and eggs.  There are many kinds of plant-based diets, such as the popular vegan and vegetarian ones, but also many others composed mostly, but not entirely of plant-based foods.

When nutritionists refer to plant-based diets, we are describing, as you would assume, a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, but also  legumes, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and oils.  Plant-based diets can offer all the necessary proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for optimal health.  In fact, research shows that the benefits of plant-based diets are wide-ranging to include: 

Disease Prevention
  • Heart health: Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, and improved cholesterol levels.
  • Improved blood sugar: plant-based diets can prevent, manage, and reverse type 2 diabetes.
  • Lower risk of cancer: including colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers when compared to regular meat eaters.
  • A healthier brain: avoiding animal products and high fat foods when following a plant-based diet has been linked to better cognitive function, including long-term memory and executive function.
  • A longer life: diets containing higher levels of plant protein are also linked to a lower risk of early and premature death. Diets with as little as 3-4 servings of fruits, vegetables, and legumes per day are associated with a lower risk of all causes of early death.
Easier Weight Management
  • Those who follow a plant-based diet tend to be leaner and are better able to lose weight and keep it off for the long-term because their overall calorie density is lower, and the foods are rich in fiber which helps you feel full.
  • Furthermore, limiting and avoiding high fat foods helps reduce calorie intake, and thus supports weight loss without significant dietary restriction, which makes a plant-based diet optimal for long term success.
Reduced Environmental Footprint
  • Plant-based diets place much less stress on the environment than a diet with a higher quantity of animal products. Feeding animals to produce food uses many of our natural resources such as water and is estimated to be responsible for 14% of all emissions.

Following a 100% plant-based diet might not work for everyone. Fortunately, there is a place for moderation when striving for optimal health. The Mediterranean Diet is a great example of a diet with its foundation in plant-based sources, but it also includes lean proteins like fish and poultry, low fat dairy, and eggs. When discussing the importance of plant-based foods with my patients, I strive to find a balance that works for them–such as considering a vegetarian meal 1-2 days a week, instead of eliminating all animal products from their diet.  Another option is to consider changing the focus of your meal and having smaller portions of  meat and larger portions of plant-based foods. In fact, making small changes can have a big impact; you can start reaping the significant benefits of a plant-based diet with as little as 4 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.   

As always, talk to your doctor before making any significant dietary changes and be mindful and consistent when establishing new rituals:

  • Consider gradually incorporating plant-based foods into your diet to give your body time to adjust to the increased fiber and to help prevent bloating or other gastrointestinal symptoms.
  • Pay attention to the quality of plant-based foods you are consuming. Unhealthy plant-based foods, like veggie chips and french fries, are not going to help you achieve your health goals.
  • If you do choose to go vegan, talk to your doctor about monitoring your vitamin B12 levels to make sure you are getting the nutrients you need.

We can also add vegan dietary supplements to your wellness routine.

Remember, it’s never too late to start switching to a plant-based diet!