“Plant-based”; it’s a buzzword we’re seeing more and more. Restaurant chains are offering meat-free alternatives to their most popular foods, and the vegetarian sections at supermarkets are steadily growing in size. Plant-based products are higher in demand, and plant-based proteins are one of the fastest growing food trends for 2020. Professional athletes are praising the merits of decreasing animal products in their diets. And, if that wasn’t buzzy enough, two out of three Hemsworth brothers have cut all animal products out of their diets. And one of those brothers is Thor. That god-like six-pack doesn’t exactly fit in with the previously popular stereotype of the sallow-skinned vegetarian who could barely lift a pencil from lack of protein.
“Plant-based”; even the word itself sounds healthy.
With all the buzzing, it’s hard not to take notice. You’re curious. But you’re just not sure.
You have questions.
What exactly is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet means eating more whole foods (think less canned or processed food) and more plants-fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. One of the best things about a plant-based diet is you get to choose the parameters of your diet. You get to decide how strict you want it to be. Plant-based does not mean you have to eat only plants unless that’s how you want to define it. Some people who are “plant-based” are vegetarians; they eat no meat but typically consume eggs and dairy. Those who follow the Mediterranean diet usually include chicken and seafood as well. The vegan life-style excludes all animal products, not just in the diet but in every aspect of one’s life. Some people might simply view the diet change as a way to increase their consumption of plant-based foods and lessen the amount of meat they eat. Whether you’re ready to get rid of all your leather-soled shoes or just want to turn “Meatless Monday” into a dinner that happens more than once a week, going plant-based is an excellent way to make plants a key part of your diet.
But is it really healthy for you?
Reaching for a head of broccoli over a handful of bacon is the healthier choice. That’s pretty straightforward, right? Whether positively or negatively, what you eat affects your health and your quality of life.
Eating a diet full of plants is one of the most powerful steps you can take to naturally and holistically improve your health. This doesn’t just mean having a muscle-bound physique or even getting to a healthy weight. It means feeling better physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” -The World Health Organization
Doing something as simple as switching to a plant-based diet can help to get you to that holistically healthy place. Let’s take a look at the 9 ways your body will benefit from making the change.
1. Achieve & Maintain a Healthy Weight
Counting calories can be time-consuming and stressful. Often it leads to feelings of negative self-judgment and feelings of failure. A plant-based diet, with its focus on fruits and vegetables, already has a much lower caloric intake than diets that include large amounts of saturated fats and processed foods.
No one food or diet is going to be the miracle that helps you lose unhealthy weight. But a balanced diet made up of mostly plant-based, whole foods can help you shed pounds and maintain a healthy weight and metabolism.
According to an article published in The Permanente Journal, a plant-based diet that limits animal products does not negatively affect the nutritional quality of your diet. Yes, you can get plenty of protein from vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. If you’re not sure how to get plenty of protein into your diet without eating meat, don’t forget that the internet provides lots of information for you.
A common misconception tied to plant-based eating, and more specifically diets which exclude meat altogether, is that people who eat that way must always feel hungry and unsatisfied. But that’s not true. Highly processed foods, such as pasta and cheese and many meat products, are filled with empty carbs that will have you foraging in the kitchen for a snack not long after you finish eating. Plant foods are incredibly nutrient dense, which makes it more likely you’ll feel full after finishing a meal.
2. Lower Blood Pressure & Cholesterol
Numerous studies have found that when compared to those who eat meat, vegetarians tend to have lowered hypertension and cholesterol levels. And, going even further, those who completely cut out all animal products from their diets have even lower levels.
It’s pretty simple. Animal products and processed foods are high in cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fats. Plant-based foods aren’t. So as long as you aren’t drowning that spinach in butter and salt, you can maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels just by mindfully eating a plant-based diet.
3. Improve Gut Health
Did you know there are groups of microorganisms that live in your gastrointestinal tract? These little guys generate by-products that fortify the intestinal tract. They help with fiber digestion and your body’s natural production of vitamins B12 and K. This is extra important for vegans and vegetarians since B12 is a common deficiency among people who don’t eat animal products.
Plant-based eaters have a much higher fiber intake. This means the digestive track works better, and there are fewer instances of constipation and bloating. An unhealthy gut can cause bad breath, fatigue, skin problems, moodiness, and even depression. So keeping all those little microorganisms in your gut working at their best will help to keep your mind and body working at its best as well.
4. Lower Risk of Chronic Diseases
Chronic disease is a disease or condition which is long-lasting, usually more than three months. Certain foods, like processed meats, have been proven to be carcinogenic, so a diet that limits the eating of animal products will logically lower the risk of different types of cancer. Fruits and vegetables also contain phytochemicals which are high in antioxidants and have protective and preventative qualities.
Plant-based diets can also help to prevent and manage diabetes. Vegetarians are about 50% less likely to get diabetes than meat-eaters. This is possibly because increased amounts of citrus fruits and high-fiber foods such as beans, can improve insulin sensitivity and lower insulin resistance.
Studies have shown that a plant-based diet also reduces the risk of getting other chronic diseases such as, but not limited to, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis.
5. Boost Your Immune System
Remember those antioxidants and phytochemicals we were just talking about? The protective and preventative qualities they possess also help to stimulate your immune system activity. Fruits and vegetables are packed with carotenoids and flavonoids. Flavonoids possess antiviral capabilities that can help protect you from the common cold as well as guard against more serious viral contagions. In this day and age, few things are more important than maintaining a healthy immune system.
As for carotenoids, the body converts them into vitamin A which is vital for a healthy and robust immune system. Added bonus? Vitamin A is good for your vision as well!
Speaking of vitamins, vitamin D, found in fortified whole-grain cereals and plant-based milks, prevents inflammation, which also strengthens your immune ystem.
6. Improve Skin Health
All those antioxidants in healthy and whole plant-based foods help the skin to age slowly. They can also reduce wrinkles and decrease scarring. Those super protective antioxidants are also guarding against pollutants and free radicals which damage the skin and make it look dull and aged.
Many fruits and vegetables, such as watermelon, cucumber, lettuce, and strawberries, have a high water content. So along with the recommended amount of water you should be drinking in a day, a plant-based diet can help you, and your skin, stay hydrated. And hydrated skin is healthy, radiant skin.
Diet and skin health are closely linked, so the recipe for healthy skin is pretty simple. Drink water, practice proper skin care and eat your vitamins and minerals in the form of real, plant-based foods to keep your skin looking healthy, hydrated, and blemish-free.
7. Boost Your Energy
Diet plays a massive role in our rising and falling energy levels. Just think about how you feel after eating a greasy burger and fries compared to how you feel after eating a meal full of whole, minimally processed foods. Animal-based proteins can be difficult for the body to digest, which means more energy is required to do it. Plant-based protein is much easier to digest, so your body doesn’t use up massive amounts of energy doing it.
Naturally occurring plant foods are full of complex carbohydrates that our body uses to fuel itself. Simple carbohydrates found in foods such as sugar, corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrates are absorbed and used by the body very quickly, giving you that feeling of a spike and then a crash. Complex carbs take longer to be digested and pack more nutrients, providing lasting energy without the massive come-down.
Plus, certain foods like bananas, sweet potatoes, and nut butters contain vitamin B6, tryptophan, and magnesium, which help ensure a healthy sleep cycle. And a good night’s rest means more energy throughout your day.
There’s No Debate
When you look at the evidence, a diet focused on plenty of whole, minimally processed plant-based foods is extremely beneficial for overall health.
To eat more plant-based foods, you don’t necessarily have to switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet. Try to think of meat as a supporting actor rather than the main star and reduce the amount you put in your meal or on your plate. Go meatless two or three nights a week.
You have the world wide web at your fingertips. There are countless whole-food, plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian food bloggers out there whose websites are full of delicious and often simple recipes. I promise you’ll never run out of ideas of what to make in the kitchen.
Be like Thor and reach for the broccoli over the bacon. Make a conscious effort to eat more plant-based, whole foods, and your body, and your brain will thank you for it. You can move slowly and take small steps towards a healthier diet and a healthier you. Remember, sometimes the smallest and simplest changes can have the most significant results.