Why Moving Toward a Plant-Based Diet Is Good for Your Health
June 9, 2022 Posted by Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH
What’s the big deal about plant-based diets? Are we really going to get healthier and find all the nutrition we need in humble plants?
We are living in the golden age of plant-based foods, and there’s no denying that a plant-based diet is a hot trend. Nowadays, even fast food franchises are offering items such as Burger King’s Impossible Whopper and KFC’s plant-based chicken nuggets.
There are good reasons for these innovations. Scientists are discovering many health benefits to moving away from eating so much meat and dairy and toward eating more plants, grains, and healthy fats.
What does it mean to eat a plant-based diet? Is it the same as being vegan?
Plant-Based vs. Vegan
What do the terms mean when it comes to diet?
A vegan diet or a plant-based exclusive diet consists of food only derived from plants.
A whole food plant-based diet is also plant-exclusive and doesn’t include any processed oils and may limit plant fats.
A plant-based diet is primarily from plants, but could include some food from animal sources.
So, in general, plant-based diets are similar to vegan diets, but not as strict.
In this edition of Coffee Conversations with Scientists, Dr. Rania Dempsey, a lifestyle medicine physician, shares some of the science behind plant-based nutrition and offers some simple lifestyle modifications to improve overall health.
“I think the important distinction between plant-based and vegan diets is that with plant-based diets we really emphasize what we’re including,” says Dempsey. “So it’s about bringing in abundant plant foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, intact grains, and all these foods that give us lots of nutritional value.”
Another principle of plant-based nutrition is the emphasis on eating foods that are as close to nature as possible—minimally processed or unprocessed.
Meet the Lifestyle Doctors
Dempsey is part of a growing specialty of medicine. Instead of surgery and pills, lifestyle medicine is focused on evidence‑based lifestyle changes, nutrition, exercise, and stress‑reduction strategies that address the root causes of illness.
It’s a good thing that medicine is paying more attention to lifestyle, because Dempsey says 80‑90% of chronic illnesses are related to lifestyle.
Exercise and diet are a big part of lifestyle, so how does a plant-based diet fit in?
The Health Benefits of Plants
What are the health benefits of switching fully or partially to a plant-based diet?
The first thing to know is that a plant-based diet is not a weight‑loss “diet” like the depressing, often unsuccessful, calorie‑restrictive diets that we are all familiar with. This approach is more akin to the “mindful eating” philosophy that provides tools for understanding your relationship to food. The idea is to help people become more present and intentional while eating.
Weight loss can be a great side effect of mindful eating and healthy nutrition, but it’s not the main goal. The aim of a whole food plant-based diet is to enhance health.
What are some of the reasons why lifestyle doctors are recommending plant-based diets?
Cardiovascular health. A study published by the American Heart Association found that plant-based diets led to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, death from heart disease, and death from other causes.
Cancer prevention. 13 different cancers are linked to obesity.
Diabetes control and prevention. In 2020, 13% of the US population had diabetes. A number of studies have shown that plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian diets reduce the risk of developing diabetes and are useful in managing type 2 diabetes.
Give It a Try
Switching to a plant-based diet does not need to be a drastic move. Doctors are seeing positive changes when patients reduce the amount of animal products and increase the healthy plant foods they eat. Here are some tips for setting achievable goals when it comes to lifestyle changes.
- Add more fruits and vegetables into your meals.
- Try non‑meat protein sources like tofu, tempeh, nuts, and legumes.
- Think of meat, dairy, and specialty items like Impossible Whoppers as “sometimes foods” instead of staples.
- Talk with your doctor and health care providers about changes in your nutrition and lifestyle, considering the impact it may have on medications.
- Make gradual changes. As Dempsey says, “Set ridiculously unambitious goals,” so you can build on your success.
Feeling Satisfied with a Changing Diet
Some people worry that they won’t get enough protein or calcium or they are concerned they won’t feel satisfied without the meat or dairy they are used to consuming. It’s true that some restaurants are behind the curve when it comes to offering healthy, plant-based options.
However, when it comes to protein and calcium, it’s a myth that plant-based diets don’t offer enough. A fully vegan diet provides all the essential nutrients we need, and there are plenty of calcium‑rich foods like nuts, lentils and beans, leafy greens, soy foods and plant milks.
You might be surprised at how good you feel making these changes. Dempsey says people who switch to a plant-based diet often feel much better, in a short amount of time. She sees it most often in people who have had a health scare like a heart attack.
Another benefit, according to Dempsey, is that most people don't need to count calories when eating a plant-based diet; most plants are high in fiber, which makes us feel more satisfied.
And if you’re concerned about the environment and climate change, you’ll be happy to know that the scientific consensus is moving toward acceptance that plant-based diets are better for the health of the planet.
Seems like enough reasons to fill your plate and dig in.