One of the easiest ways you can start improving your overall health is by going plant-based. From your gut to your heart and brain, nearly every part of your body benefits when you add more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes to your plate.
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Keep in mind that following a plant-based diet doesn't mean you have to be vegetarian or vegan if you love foods like Greek yogurt, cheese or fish.
"A plant-based eating pattern may or may not include animal products, but the frequency of animal product consumption and the portion sizes of animal products are smaller than the conventional American diet," Kelly Jones, RDN, CSSD, explains. By including more whole plant foods, you'll get more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber.
"Incorporating a plant-based lifestyle actually helps people increase variety in their diet," Jones says. "People become more adventurous with vegetables and legumes they've never tried or never given a second chance, and begin adding more flavor, spices and even a greater variety of cuisines into their regular eating pattern."
And don't worry, you'll get enough protein: "Standard portions of proteins, animal-based or not, tend to be much larger than what the body needs for optimal function — and many people don't recognize the protein available from grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds all add up in meals and snacks," Jones says.
So start adding a few animal-free foods to your diet every day — remember, you don't have to overhaul your eating habits all at once — to begin reaping these plant-based diet benefits.
1. It’s Good for Your Gut
"Plant-based diets tend to better support gut health and the microbiome, which science is continuing to tell us impacts many areas of health — from immune system function to metabolism and mood," Jones says.
This is largely due to the fiber and antioxidants, compounds that protect your cells from damage, found in plants. "Since plant foods are the only source of fiber and fermentable carbohydrates known as prebiotics, and they offer tens of thousands of phytochemical antioxidants, the bacteria in the lower digestive tract are better supported when diets are rich in whole plant foods," Jones says.
Your digestive system is home to about 100 trillion bacteria (both good and bad!), and while everyone has a unique microbiota, certain collections of bacteria are known to be found in healthy people, per Harvard Medical School.
The latest research suggests that certain healthy gut bacteria are linked to lower susceptibility to rheumatoid arthritis and offer a possible treatment or prevent inflammation that contributes to fatty plaque build-up in arteries.
"One of the most fascinating areas of nutrition to me is how it impacts mental health, and studies have shown vegetarian and vegan diets to reduce psychological distress and reports of anxiety, depression and fatigue."
2. It Supports Your Immune System
"Eighty percent of our immune system is in our gastrointestinal tract, and it's good for the immune system to have a healthy microbiome," says Lauren Graf, RD. "The best way to do that is to feed the good bacteria. A lot of the fiber found in plant foods like bananas and artichokes serves as prebiotics, which are food for probiotics."
Plant foods are also filled with nutrients that can help strengthen your immune system. Just a few of the many helpful vitamins and minerals found abundantly in fruits and vegetables include:
- Vitamin C: A 200-milligram daily dose vitamin C appeared to shorten the duration of cold symptoms by 8 percent in adults and 14 percent in children, which equates to about one day less of sickness, per a January 2013 review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. One large bell pepper contains 233 milligrams of vitamin C.
- Vitamin E: Found in high-fat plant foods like peanuts, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts and almonds, vitamin E is part of nearly 200 biochemical reactions in your body and acts as an antioxidant to helps your body fight infection, per the Cleveland Clinic.
- Zinc: This mineral has antiviral properties and is found in plant foods such as beans, nuts and whole grains. It has well-established effects on the immune system and even has the potential to be a supportive treatment in people with COVID-19, per an August 2020 review in Maturitas. A zinc deficiency can result in immune dysfunction and increase your susceptibility to infection.
- Vitamin A: Known as an infection fighter, you can get vitamin A from both animal sources and plant carotenoids. Aim for colorful plant foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe and dark green leafy vegetables, the Cleveland Clinic recommends.
3. It Helps Lower Inflammation
You've likely seen powders and potions that tout antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, but it's really best to get your antioxidants through a plant-based diet.
"When we get our nutrients from whole foods, they tend to be more bioavailable than supplements," Maya Feller, RD, CDN, says. "Plus, when we eat whole foods, in general, we don't worry about toxicity."
Antioxidants are important because they can prevent or delay some types of cell damage. While diets high in vegetables and fruits (great sources of antioxidants) have been found to be healthy, research has not shown that antioxidant supplements are beneficial in preventing disease, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Your body naturally forms free radicals — highly unstable molecules that can cause oxidative stress, a process that leads to cell damage — when you exercise, digest food, smoke or are exposed to sunlight or air pollution, according to the NIH. This oxidative stress is believed to play a role in a variety of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and even eye disease like age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
"When we think about lowering inflammation with a plant-based diet, it really leads back to gut health," Feller says. "The gut is involved in managing inflammatory properties, and plants have fiber, polyphenols and phytonutrients that all help with reducing inflammation."
4. It Helps You Maintain a Healthy Weight
A large body of evidence shows that fruits and vegetables can help you lose weight.
Eating more vegetables and fruits promotes long-term weight stability or weight loss in women, per a June 2020 review in Nutrients. This may be because the fiber in fruits and vegetables helps you to feel satiated faster and because veggies and fruit are low in fat and calories. (It's worth noting that the Hass Avocado Board funded this review, but it's still notable because it specifically looked at how higher vegetable and fruit intake affects weight loss largely in women — and was the first review to do so.)
The review included one prospective study that found the top five fruits for weight loss were blueberries, apples, pears, prunes, strawberries and avocados. Meanwhile, the top five non-legume vegetables for weight loss were broccoli, peppers, summer squash, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
What's more, shifting to a plant-based, low-fat diet is linked to increasing the body's metabolism to the point of reducing excess body fat, per a November 2020 study in JAMA Network Open. By the end of the trial, the plant-based group had an average 18.7-percent increase in after-meal calorie burn and a lost about 18 pounds, as well as saw a decrease in insulin resistance and body fat — particularly visceral fat, a dangerous type of fat stored around internal organs.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends eating more fruits and vegetables as a healthy way to lose or maintain weight. The water and fiber in fruits and vegetables add volume, so you can eat the same amount of food for fewer calories (while still feeling satiated!) when you focus on produce.
5. It Keeps Your Heart Healthy
Going plant-based helps you replace unhealthy saturated and trans fats with plant-based fats that contain heart-protective polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, Feller says.
And while limiting animal foods can reduce your cholesterol levels, eating more fiber — particularly soluble fiber — actually helps to bind with cholesterol in our gut and pull it out of our bodies, Graf says. "It naturally lowers your cholesterol."
A plant-based diet is tied to a lower risk of diabetes, and diabetes and heart disease often go hand in hand, per the CDC. If you have diabetes, you are twice as likely to have a stroke or heart disease than someone without diabetes (and at a younger age). You're also more likely to have heart disease the longer you have diabetes.
"One thing that a lot of people are surprised by is that plant-based diets are very effective for preventing or reversing insulin resistance," Graf says. "When we look at real clinical trials of people following plant-based diets versus higher-fat animal diets, consuming beans, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds seems to lower insulin resistance, hemoglobin A1C levels [a measure of sugar in the blood] and your risk for developing type 2 diabetes."
These studies explore the link between conditions involved in heart health and a plant-based eating plan:
- Blood pressure: A plant-based diet packed with vegetables and whole grains and limited in refined grains, sugary drinks and meat is linked to lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels, per a July 2020 study in the BMJ.
- Diabetes: People who adhered more strictly to plant-based diets were observed to have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes than those who did so less strictly in a July 2019 meta-analysis of more than 300,000 participants in JAMA Internal Medicine.
- Cholesterol: A November 2020 study in Heart found that people with obesity (the majority were men) who followed a "green" Mediterranean diet, with plant-based foods replacing meat and fish, had lower cholesterol levels and lost up to 13.6 pounds more than those eating meat on the diet. They also had lower blood pressure.
- Heart disease: Researchers used data from 12,168 middle-aged adults who were followed up with from 1987 through 2016 to track the effect of their diets on long-term health in an August 2019 study in Journal of the American Heart Association. Those who best adhered to an overall plant-based diet or pro-vegetarian diet were observed to have a 16-percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, 31- to 32-percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality and 18- to 25-percent lower risk of all-cause mortality than those with the least adherence.
Eating many plant-based foods has been linked with lower cancer rates, likely because plants produce protective phytochemicals that are anti-inflammatory — plus, they help you eat more fiber, per the Mayo Clinic.
Meanwhile, every 10 grams of fiber daily is linked to a 10-percent reduced risk of colon cancer, according to a November 2011 study in the BMJ.
7. It Benefits Your Brain
A healthy plant-based diet is linked to a lower risk of stroke, according to a March 2021 study in Neurology.
And researchers found that the Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet is linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer's Disease by up to 53 percent in those who adhere to the diet rigorously and by 35 percent in those who stick to it moderately well, per a February 2015 study in Alzheimer's & Dementia.
The MIND diet emphasizes brain-healthy food groups, which are largely plant-based. It also outlines five unhealthy groups to limit, including red meats, butter and cheese.
"Plant-based diets are linked to better brain health, especially as we age," Jones says. "The MIND diet is very rich in plants with a very small inclusion of animal products, and is well-researched to have an association with improved neurological function and reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease."
A plant-based diet may also be able to influence brain function — though the exact mechanisms are still unclear and more research is needed, per a September 2019 review in Translational Psychiatry.
"One of the most fascinating areas of nutrition to me is how it impacts mental health, and studies have shown vegetarian and vegan diets to reduce psychological distress and reports of anxiety, depression and fatigue," Jones says.
"The Mediterranean diet is one of the most popular plant-based diets and also has links to reductions in depression, anxiety and stress despite the inclusion of fish and very small amounts of meat and poultry."
8. You'll Have More Energy
Plant-based foods are beneficial for your digestive system in several ways, which may help you feel more energized and satiated throughout the day.
"An increase in nourishing carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — as well as the decrease in saturated fat and heavy animal proteins — can leave people feeling lighter, more energetic and with an improved mood," Jones says.
What's more, although many fad diets emphasize excluding carbs, it's the type of fuel your body prefers.
"In meat-heavy American diets, fat and protein tend to be ingested in higher amounts than needed, so smaller percentages of energy come from carbs," Jones says. "While this may sound in line with some trendy diets, carbs are the most efficient and preferred source of energy for the muscles and the central nervous system. Shifting to a more plant-based diet increases intake of the usable energy that our bodies thrive off."
"We also think of antioxidants as beneficial for long-term health, but in the short term, they work synergistically with each other as well as with our macronutrients, vitamins and minerals to support our metabolism, reduce inflammation and play a role in immune function. This can in turn improve energy levels and mental clarity," Jones adds.
Plant-based diets help improve blood thickness, helping more oxygen reach the muscles and improving athletic performance, per a January 2019 review in Nutrients. They also improve arterial flexibility and diameter to lead to better blood flow while a single high-fat meal can impair arterial function for several hours.
You may not even realize how sluggish you're feeling until you make the shift to a plant-based diet. "When you're eating food that's easier for our body to break down, I believe that can improve energy levels," Graf says. "Sometimes, people will say they didn't realize how bad they were feeling or how much better they could feel until they changed their habits."
More research is needed, but some theoretical findings suggest that a long-term plant-based diet is associated with lower rates of osteoporosis, per an August 2020 review in Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity.
There's also no evidence that a plant-based diet, when followed carefully to maintain adequate calcium and vitamin D levels, has negative effects on bone health.
10. It's Tied to a Lower Risk of Kidney Disease
Although there were once concerns about protein and amino acid deficiencies with plant-based proteins in people with chronic kidney disease (CKD), those were debunked years ago.
A March 2019 paper in the Journal of Renal Nutrition concluded that not only can you eat a plant-based protein diet if you have chronic kidney disease, but it may even improve your condition.
"Those substituting animal-based proteins for plant-based proteins have shown reductions in severity of hypertension [high blood pressure], hyperphosphatemia [an electrolyte disorder] and metabolic acidosis [an accumulation of acid in the body]," note the researchers.
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- Harvard Medical School: "Should I be eating more fiber?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Chart of high-fiber foods"
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: "Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold"
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- JAMA Network Open: "Effect of a Low-Fat Vegan Diet on Body Weight, Insulin Sensitivity, Postprandial Metabolism, and Intramyocellular and Hepatocellular Lipid Levels in Overweight Adults"
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Using Fruits & Vegetables to Manage Your Weight"
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- Alzheimer's & Dementia: "MIND Diet Associated with Reduced Incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease"
- Translational Psychiatry: "The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review"
- Nutrients: "Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports"
- USDA: "Sweet Red Bell Peppers"
- BMJ: "https://nutrition.bmj.com/content/early/2020/07/07/bmjnph-2020-000077"
- Neurology: "Quality of Plant-based Diet and Risk of Total, Ischemic, and Hemorrhagic Stroke"