Of all the reasons I promote a whole food, plant-based diet, this is the most important. As a professional in the health and nutritional world, it would be irresponsible of me to encourage those I work with to follow a diet that doesn’t produce long-term health benefits. I feel good about promoting this lifestyle diet because it is so health-promoting and it works well for most people.
Before we get into just a few of the benefits, here’s a refresher of what a whole food, plant-based diet includes: fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. The whole food part means that these are used in their whole form or are minimally processed in a way that does not take away from their nutritional value. For example, whole soybeans and tofu are both healthy forms of soy. Soy protein isolate is not healthy as it has been completely altered from its natural state and its healthy components (fiber, minerals, etc) have been stripped away.
It generally does not include processed foods including refined sugars/sweeteners or flours, oils, or any artificial preservatives or chemicals. It also excludes all animal products although some may choose to include a limited amount.
Now, let’s dive in.
1. Eating a whole food, plant-based diet can help prevent and reverse type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease which means it can be prevented by the choices we make. This includes choosing whether or not to follow a healthy diet. As our consumption of processed foods, dairy, and meat has increased so has the prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Getting back to real whole food that wasn’t made in a factory is the right choice in preventing and reversing this disease. This study shows that different forms of vegetarian (or plant-based) diets were associated with an impressive reduction in the incidence of diabetes. Vegans had the lowest incidence of the disease.
2. A whole food, plant-based diet can prevent and reverse heart disease
Eating plants has so many heart-healthy benefits. This PubMed article dives into the ways a plant-based diet is protective against high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis (build-up of plaque in the arteries that leads to heart attacks and strokes). It turns out that polyphenols that come from plants have protective effects on our vascular endothelial cells. Studies suggest that these polyphenols act as antioxidants that prevent the formation of plaque in the first place. If you are interested in learning more about treating heart disease through diet, check out the work of Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn who says, “Coronary heart disease is a…foodborne illness which need never exist or progress.”
3. Eating plants leads to better digestion
Fiber is possibly one of the most important nutrients to overall health, especially digestive health, and it’s only found in plant foods! Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t getting enough of it. Fiber from the food we eat feeds the healthy bacteria in our gut and keeps them thriving (which in turn keeps us thriving). When our healthy gut flora gets disrupted from lack of fiber, excess meat, and sugar it can lead to obesity, constipation, diarrhea, food sensitivities, and even colon cancer. Do yourself and your microbiome a favor and fill your plate with more fiber-rich foods including vegetables, tubers, and whole grains. Some particularly great foods for gut health include onions, broccoli, oats, beans, potatoes, blueberries, and leafy greens.
4. A whole food, plant-based diet can lead to a healthy weight
Completely plant-based eaters tend to consume fewer calories in general because the majority of the foods they are eating are naturally lower in calories. On a plant-based diet, one can eat more food for fewer calories (great for volume eaters). This approach is called calorie density which is simply a measure of how many calories are in a particular weight of food (usually based on a pound of food). High-calorie dense foods include things such as meat, dairy, processed and fast foods, flour, oils, sugar, avocado, and dried fruits. Low-calorie dense foods are fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, intact whole grains, and legumes. The low-calories dense foods tend to be the highest in nutrients so by switching your diet to mostly low-calorie dense foods, you are maximizing your nutrient intake. This approach to eating can lead to weight loss without having to go hungry or strictly count calories. In fact, when you start eating food without labels, you no longer need to count calories. Check out this helpful infographic from Forks Over Knives.
So, let’s finish this off with some simple tips to start eating more minimally processed, plant foods!
Instead of cereal and cow’s milk, try cereal with an unsweetened soy, almond, oat, or other plant-milk. Better yet, switch out the processed cereal to a whole grain like rolled oats which can be consumed cooked or raw like cereal.
Always have eggs for brunch? Try a tofu scramble with veggies and diced potatoes mixed in for a delicious plant-based meal. Don’t forget the salsa!
Instead of mayonnaise, try hummus or sliced avocado on your next sandwich. Be sure to nix the meat and opt to pile it high with all the veggies you desire.
Try a marinated and grilled portobello mushroom instead of a meat-based burger.
Stay in touch! I’d love to hear what you thought while reading this article.