When you think of a vegetarian or vegan diet, visions of eating tofu and heaping plates of vegetables may come to mind. Yet, that’s not how every vegetarian or vegan eats The fact is not all vegan or vegetarian diets are healthy. You can eat vegan and fill your plate with nothing but French fries and pizza with dairy-free cheese.
In contrast, plant-based diets are about choosing whole, plant-based foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. It’s less about what NOT to eat (meat and dairy) than about what TO eat – unprocessed, plant foods. Unlike veganism where you avoid all meat and dairy, adopting a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be all or none. Rather than giving up all animal-based foods, you can replace more of the meat and dairy in your diet with plant-based options. Research shows that taking even small steps to make your diet more plant-based has health advantages.
A Plant-Based Diet for Your Heart and Blood Vessels
One of the benefits of adding more plant foods to your diet is a lower risk of heart disease. In a recent study, researchers found that adult men and women who ate a diet made up of 70% plant-based foods lowered their risk of dying from heart disease or stroke by 20%. Considering that these are two of the most common causes of death and disability, that’s a positive.
The question is whether the benefits of a mostly plant-based diet comes from eating more fruits and vegetables or from the fact that you’re eating less meat. Several studies link processed meat with a higher risk for health problems, including heart disease and cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization compared eating processed meats, like sausage, ham, and bacon, to cigarette smoking. What’s less clear is whether unprocessed red meat also increases the risk of health problems.
Is unprocessed red meat just as unhealthy? Some studies show no association between consuming unprocessed red meat. Yet, a Harvard study that followed 120,000 people for thirty years found those who ate the most red meat, including unprocessed red meat, were at the greatest risk of dying prematurely. There are a number of ways in which red meat might increase the risk of cancer. Here are some backed by preliminary research:
· Red meat is high in carnitine. Gut bacteria turn carnitine into another chemical called TMAO. TMAO triggers gut inflammation and is linked with colon cancer.
· When you cook any type of meat, red or white, to high temperatures, it produces carcinogenic compounds called HCAs, and polycyclic amines. These compounds are damaging to cells.
· Red meat is rich in iron. If you get too much iron in your diet, it acts as a pro-oxidant and causes damage to the DNA inside cells. This can damage the DNA inside cells and make it easier for a tumor to form.
· People who eat large amounts of red meat produce antibodies against Neu5Gc, a sugar that can trigger intestinal inflammation.
· Dairy foods contain hormones that may play a role in some types of cancer, especially breast and prostate cancer.
· Food animals are exposed to antibiotics. These antibiotics can kill healthy gut bacteria in our intestinal tract and lead to imbalances that can trigger inflammation.
Health Benefits of Plant-Based Foods
It’s hard to deny the benefits that plant foods offer. Plants come neatly packaged with a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, chemicals that help keep a plant healthy and also offer health benefits for humans. Many of these phytonutrients are antioxidants that protect cells against damage and reduce inflammation. Amazingly, there are more than 25,000 different phytonutrients. In general, plants that are more vivid in color have more phytonutrients.
Each phytonutrient has its own unique set of health benefits. For example, purple fruits and vegetables are rich in anthocyanins, compounds that are particularly important for blood vessel and brain health. Orange and yellow plants contain phytonutrients called carotenoids that protect against vision-related issues like cataracts. By “eating the rainbow,” you get the benefits of a medley of phytonutrients.
Plus, plants contain another component that you don’t get from meat and dairy – fiber. Sadly, studies show that most people get only about half the fiber their body needs for good health. Animal foods contain no fiber, whereas plants are an abundant source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Some studies show a link between a high-fiber diet and a lower risk of colon cancer as well as heart disease.
Other diseases that a plant-based diet lowers the risk of that we haven’t mentioned:
· Kidney stones
· Type 2 diabetes
· High blood pressure
So, you can see that adding more plant-based foods to your diet can reduce your risk for health problems – but what about longevity? If you look at cultures that eat mostly plant-based foods, they tend to have a longer lifespan, on average. Even the Mediterranean diet, one linked with longevity, is predominantly plant-based.
If you’re not convinced by any of the above, you might be interested in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association involving more than 73,000 people. It showed that vegetarians had a 12% lower risk of dying relative to meat eaters over the six-year period that they followed them.
The Bottom Line
There is evidence that people who eat a plant-based diet have a longevity advantage and a lower risk of developing chronic health problems. Still, you don’t have to become a vegetarian or vegan to enjoy the health benefits. Vegetarian and vegan diets aren’t necessarily healthy anyway since there are lots of vegan processed foods on the market. You can enjoy the benefits of a plant-based diet by eating more plant-based protein and substituting fruits and vegetables for processed carbohydrates. Save room on your plate for more veggies, fruit, nuts, and whole grains!
The Guardian. “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO”
Consumer Reports. “The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet”
Live Science. “What Are Phytonutrients?”
J Nutr. 2010 Aug;140(8):1445-53. doi: 10.3945/jn.110.122358. Epub 2010 Jun 23.
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Vegetarian Foods: Powerful for Health”
Am J Clin Nutr September 2003. Vol. 78 no. 3 526S-532S.
Live Science. “Want to Live Longer? Eat a Plant-Based Diet”
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