8 Benefits of a Plant Based Diet

In this blog, guest blogger, Nicole Smolen, discusses plant based diets. Nicole is a nutrition enthusiast as well as an avid recipe developer. She is a self described foodie who enjoys creating plant-based recipes with a cinematic twist (utilizing her background in cinema, she combines it with her interest in food and nutrition to create fun recipes). Read on to learn what a plant based diet is all about and see if this is right for you.

Over the past 15 years, the number of plant-based Americans has increased by 9.4 million, surpassing 9.7 million. Big brand names, ranging from McDonald’s to Starbucks, now offer vegetarian and vegan options across the globe. However, there is an abundance of conflicting information surrounding this lifestyle, so let’s start from the beginning…

What is a plant-based diet?

A regimen that encourages the consumption of whole, plant-based foods while limiting meat, eggs, dairy, and processed products. This style of eating and living is not restricted to fruits and vegetables. It welcomes a rich variety of whole grains, legumes, beans, as well as a moderate amount of nuts and seeds.

Following plant-forward eating patterns does not automatically make you a vegetarian or vegan. As outlined below, a wide range of diets may fit the definition.

A flexitarian only eats meat, poultry, fish, or seafood on rare occasions. However, they regularly incorporate eggs, milk, and cheese.
Vegetarians consume eggs and dairy products but do not include are not particularly fond of meat, poultry, fish, or seafood in their diet.
Vegans stay away from any and all animal products—including milk, eggs, honey and gelatin!
Raw vegans exclude all foods of animal origin. They also embrace the concept of raw foodism. Popularized in the 21st century, this dietary practice stipulates that food should only be consumed raw or heated at temperatures below 104-118℉ (40-48℃).

The key distinction? While prioritizing unprocessed, plant-sourced ingredients, plant-based eaters limit their intake of animal products, for maximum health benefits. Additionally, a traditional plant-based consumer typically resists abundant consumption of refined grains, sweets, sugary beverages, fried foods, and the like. Here is a typical day in their life:

Breakfast – Coconut vanilla chia pudding with fresh berries
Lunch – Greek salad with mixed greens, garbanzo beans, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, cucumber, feta (optional), extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar
Snack – Sliced apple with natural peanut butter
Dinner – Quinoa bowl with black beans, corn, avocado, and salsa
Dessert – Two squares of dairy-free dark chocolate (sweetened with coconut sugar)

The good news? A plant-based diet is flexible. You can adapt it to fit your needs. There are countless benefits associated with plant-forward eating habits.

  1. Maintain a healthy weight.

A plant-based lifestyle lowers the risk of obesity. Our bodies digest whole grains and vegetables at a slower pace, since they rank lower on the glycemic index. Antioxidants and fiber, commonly found in fruit, help you feel fuller longer.

  1. Boost your immune system and reduce inflammation.

Plants contain essential vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (phytonutrients), and antioxidants. Nutrient-dense meals not only satisfy cravings. They restore cells and protect against toxins from environmental pollutants, processed foods, bacteria, viruses, and more. Over time, widespread inflammation may damage your body’s cells and tissues. Cancer, arthritis, and other diseases proliferate in these inflammatory states. However, antioxidant-rich, whole foods can combat free radicals, defend your DNA, and promote optimum cellular function.

  1. Lower your blood pressure.

Several studies prove that hypertension, or high blood pressure, can be reduced with a plant-based diet. In other words, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes are far less likely. Potassium-rich fruits and vegetables significantly lower blood pressure. In general, plants are low in fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Less meat, dairy, and “bad” fats can decrease the blood’s viscosity (thickness), enabling our hearts to pump more efficiently.

  1. Improve your gut microbiome.

Did you know that our brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected? For example, gut distress can be the cause or symptom of powerful emotions, ranging from anxiety to depression. In addition to regular bowel movements, vegetarian and vegan diets support metabolic function, immune health, and hormonal balance. How exactly? The proliferation of beneficial bacteria! That’s why prebiotics and probiotics are also key!

  1. Strengthen your brain.

Polyphenols—readily abundant in fruits, vegetables and whole grains—may halt the progression of neurodegenerative disorders, including but not limited to Alzheimer’s disease. What are some delicious sources? Cloves, dried peppermint, star anise, cocoa powder, berries, beans, nuts, vegetables, and even red wine!

  1. Lower the risk of certain cancers.

According to Mayo Clinic, a third of cancer cases could have been avoided with proper diet and nutrition. Experts suggest that fruits, vegetables, and legumes are viable solutions. People who adhere to a vegan or vegetarian diet appear to have the lowest cancer rates. How is this possible? Phytochemicals, found in plants, shield cells and combat inflammation. Fiber also reduces the risk of debilitating diseases, especially colorectal cancer. A balanced BMI (body mass index) and frequent exercise may also prolong life.

  1. Elevate athletic performance.

You may have heard of Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton, Colin Kaepernick, Alex Morgan, Tia Blanco, or Diana Taurasi. What do all of these world-class athletes have in common? Believe it or not, they are all vegan. Heart disease, inflammation, blood viscosity, aerobic capacity, arterial flexibility and diameter, antioxidant levels, endurance, and recovery can all be improved with a plant-based diet.

  1. Reduce your carbon footprint.

Did you know that it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef? It is no secret that cattle grazing produces significant amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases strongly linked to climate change. Meals centered around plants create a positive chain-reaction. Humans, animals, and Mother Earth can all reap the rewards!

Moderation is key. It is essential to listen to your body and practice intuitive eating. Without nutrient-dense meals, our cells starve. In order to efficiently metabolize energy, we must prioritize good proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. If we want to live to the fullest, we must nourish our bodies—and brains—with a colorful medley of plants! I leave you with this eloquent adage from Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
—Hippocrates, c 460-370 BCE, ancient Greek physician in the Age of Pericles

Sources:
1 Danziger, Lucy. “The Number of Americans Eating Plant-Based Has Passed 9.7 Million.” The Beet, The Beet, 9 Mar. 2020, https://thebeet.com/the-number-of-americans-eating-plant-based-has-passed-9-7-million-survey-finds/.
2 Tuso, Phillip J., et al. “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets.” The Permanente Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, 2013, pp. 61–66., https://doi.org/10.7812/tpp/12-085.
3 Lawler, Moira, and Kelly Kennedy. “What Is a Plant-Based Diet? Food List, 7-Day Meal Plan, Benefits, and More.” EverydayHealth.com, Everyday Health, Inc., 6 Oct. 2020, https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/plant-based-diet-food-list-meal-plan-benefits-more/. 
4 Lawler, Moira, and Kelly Kennedy. “What Is a Plant-Based Diet? Food List, 7-Day Meal Plan, Benefits, and More.” EverydayHealth.com, Everyday Health, Inc., 6 Oct. 2020, https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/plant-based-diet-food-list-meal-plan-benefits-more/. 
5 Lawler, Moira, and Kelly Kennedy. “9 Scientific Benefits of Following a Plant-Based Diet.” EverydayHealth.com, Everyday Health, Inc., 17 Jan. 2020, https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/scientific-benefits-following-plant-based-diet/. 
6  Alexander, Heather. “5 Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet.” MD Anderson Cancer Center, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 4 Nov. 2020, https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/5-benefits-of-a-plant-based-diet.h20-1592991.html. 
7  Alexander, Heather. “5 Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet.” MD Anderson Cancer Center, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 4 Nov. 2020, https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/5-benefits-of-a-plant-based-diet.h20-1592991.html. 
8  “High Blood Pressure Lower Blood Pressure With a Plant-Based Diet.” Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, https://www.pcrm.org/health-topics/high-blood-pressure. 
9  “High Blood Pressure Lower Blood Pressure With a Plant-Based Diet.” Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, https://www.pcrm.org/health-topics/high-blood-pressure.
10  “High Blood Pressure Lower Blood Pressure With a Plant-Based Diet.” Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, https://www.pcrm.org/health-topics/high-blood-pressure. 
11  Malar, D. Sheeja, and K. Pandima Devi. “Dietary Polyphenols for Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease– Future Research and Development.” Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, vol. 15, no. 4, 2014, pp. 330–342., https://doi.org/10.2174/1389201015666140813122703. 
12  Malar, D. Sheeja, and K. Pandima Devi. “Dietary Polyphenols for Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease– Future Research and Development.” Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, vol. 15, no. 4, 2014, pp. 330–342., https://doi.org/10.2174/1389201015666140813122703. 
13  Mayo Clinic Staff. “How Plant-Based Food Helps Fight Cancer.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), 30 Oct. 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/how-plant-based-food-helps-fight-cancer/art-20457590. 
14  Mayo Clinic Staff. “How Plant-Based Food Helps Fight Cancer.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), 30 Oct. 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/how-plant-based-food-helps-fight-cancer/art-20457590. 
15  Mayo Clinic Staff. “How Plant-Based Food Helps Fight Cancer.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), 30 Oct. 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/how-plant-based-food-helps-fight-cancer/art-20457590. 
16  Mayo Clinic Staff. “How Plant-Based Food Helps Fight Cancer.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), 30 Oct. 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/how-plant-based-food-helps-fight-cancer/art-20457590. 

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