9 Scientific Benefits of Following a Plant-Based Diet
For years, registered dietitians and food scientists alike have touted the perks of eating plants and cutting back on meat. And it seems people are catching on. A study published in The Permanente Journal in the summer of 2016 notes that plant-based diets have gone mainstream — partly because the advantages have been well researched and healthcare practitioners recommend this way of eating as many have seen incredible results from their patients. (1)
Maya Feller, RD, CDN, a dietitian based in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook, says it’s also popular because it can reduce humans’ environmental impact and many celebrities, including Beyoncé and Tom Brady, have embraced this way of eating. “Whether you are an animal lover, an environmental advocate, or want to live your healthiest life, being plant based is the one underlying thread that seems to be compelling so many of us,” Feller says.
Going plant based is not so much a diet as it is a general approach to eating. There’s no need to count calories or stress about meeting certain macronutrient goals each day. In essence, it’s simply about eating more plant-based foods (and fewer animal-based ones while you’re at it).
There are several different interpretations of the diet:
- Vegetarian Diet Individuals who are vegetarian may eat cheese, eggs, and milk, but they do not eat meat, such as chicken, pork, and beef. Instead of meat, they lean on plant-based protein.
- Vegan Diet These people choose to forgo animal products altogether (including milk, cheese, and honey) and exclusively eat plants as part of a vegan lifestyle.
- Raw Vegan Diet Others may follow the aforementioned rules and eat only raw, plant-based foods.
- Flexitarian Diet Some people are more flexible. They try to simply cut down on their meat intake and eat a diet that’s primarily filled with plants but with some animal products here and there.
For the purposes of this article, we’re taking the latter definition — a flexitarian diet — which Krista Linares, RDN, a registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition con Sabor based in Raleigh, North Carolina, says is the more balanced approach.
She says that for current meat eaters, dismissing animal foods across the board can make mealtimes stressful and make it challenging to source micronutrients that are hard to come by in plant-based foods, such as B12 and iron.
“All people can benefit from the health effects of increasing the proportion of plants on their plates,” Feller says. Here’s what the research has found.
1. A Plant-Based Diet May Lower Your Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, can increase the risk for health issues, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (2) Luckily, the foods you eat can make a difference. Several studies have shown that sticking with a plant-based diet can reduce blood pressure, thereby reducing your risk for those conditions. A meta-analysis published in April 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine explored data from 39 studies and concluded that people who followed a vegetarian diet had lower blood pressure on average than those who followed omnivorous diets, meaning those including plants and meat. (3) And another study published in November 2016 in the Journal of Hypertension found that vegetarians had a 34 percent lower risk of developing hypertension than nonvegetarians. (4)
2. A Plant-Based Diet May Keep Your Heart Healthy
Meat contains saturated fat, which can contribute to heart issues when eaten in excess. So by cutting back on meat and loading up on plant-based foods, you’re doing your ticker a favor. (5) A study published in August 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that eating a plant-based diet may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 16 percent and dying of this health condition by about 31 percent. (6)
But it’s not just about limiting meat — you have to make sure the plant-based foods you’re consuming instead are healthy. That means loading up on whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and healthy oils (such as olive oil) rather than unhealthy plant foods, like refined grains and sugary beverages, which can increase your risk of heart trouble, according to a study published in July 2017 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. (7)
3. A Plant-Based Diet May Help Prevent Type 2 Diabetes
It’s well known that there’s a link between diet and type 2 diabetes. Weight is a major risk factor since more fatty tissue makes the cells more resistant to insulin, according to the Mayo Clinic. (8) But which type of diet is best to avoid type 2 diabetes? Studies suggest that a plant-based one has benefits. A study published in June 2016 in PLoS Medicine found that eating a plant-based diet filled with high-quality plant foods reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 34 percent. (9) It’s likely because plants are lower in saturated fats than animal foods, which raises cholesterol levels and your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, notes the American Diabetes Association. (10) Another study published in Diabetes Care found the prevalence of type 2 diabetes was 7.6 percent among nonvegetarians and only 2.9 percent for vegans. (11)
4. Eating a Plant-Based Diet Could Help You Lose Weight
Your risk of obesity decreases when you swap a meat-heavy diet for a plant-based one. In short: Plant eaters tend to weigh less, even if that’s not always the No. 1 goal. “The idea is to nourish the body and cells to improve health outcomes, but weight loss may be a by-product of replacing and reducing certain foods,” Feller says. The aforementioned Diabetes Care study found substantial body mass index (BMI) differences between non-meat eaters and meat eaters. (11) The mean BMI for vegans was 23.6, while for nonvegetarians, it was 28.8, which qualifies as overweight, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (11,12)
Eating more plants can help you drop pounds, too. According to a small study published in March 2017 in Nutrition & Diabetes, 65 overweight adults who followed a whole-food, plant-based diet for one year lost 9.25 pounds on average. (13) One reason for the weight loss is that whole grains and vegetables are relatively low on the glycemic index — which means they’re digested more slowly — and fruit contains antioxidants and fiber, which helps prolong fullness, according to data cited in a study published in January 2016 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. (14) It’s incredibly important to prioritize healthy, quality plant-based foods if weight loss is your goal. “Someone can eat a very healthy plant-based diet, but they can also eat a very unhealthy plant-based diet,” Linares says.
5. Following a Plant-Based Diet Long Term May Help You Live Longer
All of the other potential benefits listed here roll into one major one: living longer. The Journal of the American Heart Association study found that a plant-based diet lowers the risk of all causes of mortality by 25 percent. (6) And beyond that, the protective levels increase if you stick with healthy plant-based foods. A study published in April 2018 in The Journal of Nutrition found that eating healthy plant foods versus unhealthy ones extends that protection layer by another 5 percent. To determine healthy plant foods, researchers assigned various nonanimal products a score between 1 and 17. Less-healthy foods — like soda, cake, and white bread — though meat free, received a low score; meanwhile, healthier plant foods— like whole grains, veggies, and fruit — received a higher score. (15)
6. A Plant-Based Diet May Decrease Your Risk of Cancer
As we’ve seen, following a plant-based diet has many health benefits — but can it help prevent cancer? Research suggests that the answer could be yes. The American Institute for Cancer Research says the best way to source cancer-protective nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, is to eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and some animal foods. (16) And the same goes for cancer survivors. A review published in 2011 in Cancer Management and Research notes the protective benefits are there, though they’re moderate (lowering the risk for certain cancers by about 10 percent) and are likely due to the nutrients present in plant foods and because eating this way promotes a healthy weight. (17)
7. A Plant-Based Diet May Improve Your Cholesterol
High cholesterol can lead to fatty deposits in the blood, which can restrict blood flow and potentially lead to heart attack, stroke, or heart disease. (18) But a healthy diet can help keep cholesterol levels in check. Specifically, moving away from a diet filled with animal products toward one that’s primarily plant based can lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by between 10 and 15 percent, while those following a strict vegan diet can lower their LDL cholesterol by as much as 25 percent, according to a review of 27 studies published in The American Journal of Cardiology. (19)
8. Eating a Plant-Based Diet May Minimize Your Risk of Stroke
Your risk for stroke increases if you have high blood pressure, are overweight, have diabetes or heart disease, have high cholesterol, or smoke, drink, or use drugs. (20) As noted above, most of those risk factors can be wiped out by following a plant-based diet and making healthy lifestyle choices. After all, half of strokes are preventable. (20) One simple way to reduce your risk is by increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables. The highest consumers of fruits and veggies had a 21 percent lower risk of stroke than those who consumed the least, according to a study published in June 2014 in Stroke. (21)
9. Ramping Up Your Plant Intake May Keep Your Brain Strong
The physiological benefits of following a plant-based diet are many, but there are some possible mental ones, too. “There is some compelling research examining plant-based diets and their role in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s,” Feller says. A review of nine studies, published in 2017 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience,found that eating an extra 100 grams of fruits and vegetables per day (about one-half cup) led to a 13 percent reduction in the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. (22) The likely reason: Fruits and vegetables are rich in polyphenols, which an article published in August 2018 in Nutrients notes are in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (aka, the cornerstones of a plant-based diet). Polyphenols may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and may help reverse cognitive decline, according to a review published in 2014 in Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology. (23)