What are the health benefits of a plant-based diet?

September 24, 2019 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
plant-based diet

A growing number of people are choosing to eat a plant-based diet. Some make the switch because of concerns about the environmental impact of greenhouse gasses and water and land consumption associated with meat production. Another key reason people choose a plant-based diet is because of the potential health benefits it may offer, including weight loss as well as a reduced risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, stroke, diabetes, digestive disease, and some types of cancer.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet limits or entirely avoids animal-based products. Animal-based products include not only meat, poultry, and seafood, but also dairy products and eggs. Many people who eat a plant-based or plant-forward diet do include some animal products in their diet, but these foods aren’t the centerpiece of their diet. If you choose to follow a strict vegan diet, you would also avoid any other foods produced by animals, such as honey.

While the source of your food is important, the quality of that food is equally important. That’s why it’s important to choose whole foods that are minimally processed and to include a variety of types of foods including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, healthy fats, nuts, and seeds. You should also limit or avoid refined foods like added sugars and white flour and rice.

The health benefits of a plant-based diet

Several recent studies have found associations between a plant-based diet and a decreased risk of heart disease. One study conducted in the Netherlands noted that people who ate more plant-derived protein were at a lower risk of developing heart disease than those in the study who ate more animal protein. A Brazilian study found that study participants whose diets were rich in plant protein were 60% less likely to develop plaque build-up in their coronary arteries compared to those who ate more animal protein.

Vegetarian and plant-forward diets have also been linked with a lower risk of developing diabetes and a better ability to control blood sugar in people who have already been diagnosed with diabetes. One large study found that people who ate a healthy, plant-based diet had a 34% lower risk of developing diabetes. Researchers also found a link between eating this type of diet and better blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.

Focusing your diet on plants may also help you lose weight and keep it off. Several studies have found an association between vegetarian and whole food plant-focused diets and weight loss. One of the studies, a review of 12 studies, found that people on a plant-based diet lost about 4.5 pounds more than those who did not eat a vegetarian diet during an 18-week period. Another study found that older people who were overweight and then followed a whole food plant-based diet lost more weight than those in the control group and were able to maintain their lower weight over the course of the study’s yearlong follow-up.

Other researchers have noted associations between plant-focused diets and a lower risk of gastrointestinal and colorectal cancer, with one study finding that participants who followed a vegetarian diet had a 22% lower risk of developing colorectal cancer compared to those who didn’t follow the diet. Some studies have also found an association between a vegetarian diet and a lower risk of breast cancer.

If you’re thinking about switching to a plant-forward diet, a health advisor can connect you with a nutrition specialist who can build an eating plan that ensures you’re making healthy choices, getting enough protein and other nutrients, and working towards your health goals, whether that’s losing weight, reducing your heart disease risk, or managing diabetes.