12 Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Plant-based foods are good for you.

While the constant parade of new fad diets promise to offer health benefits, many nutritionists and doctors continue to encourage patients to adopt a plant-based lifestyle.

“Plant-based diets are so often recommended by dietitians because of the impressive amount of health benefits they offer,” says Siera Holley, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “Plants are nutrient-dense, which means they contain more beneficial nutrients — like vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants — than calories,” she notes.

All of those components are health-supporting, Holley says. “From health maintenance and prevention to disease management, research continually shows the positive impact diets consisting primarily of plants offer.”

Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of clinical cardiology and director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness with National Jewish Health in Denver agrees, saying quite simply that “plants are our friends. Every professional society, including the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, the American Diabetes Association — they all recommend a plant-based diet as one of the best ways to prevent disease. And it’s probably the single best antidote, if you will, to the traditional American lifestyle.”

Here are 12 benefits a plant-based diet can offer:

1. Heart health

Plants are low in salt and contain no fat, both of which can contribute to the development of heart disease, says Kathryn Parker, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist with Aviv Clinics in The Villages, Florida. Eating a diet composed primarily of plants, which is high in cholesterol-reducing fiber, can “help reduce plaque build up in the bloodstream,” which may reduce your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack or stroke.

A recent study involving 214,108 men and women found that a plant-based diet containing lignans — a compound produced by plants found in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, red wine and coffee — “was associated with lowering the risk for coronary heart disease,” says Janette Wong, a registered dietitian with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California. “The benefit was found to be greater on those adults who consumed more dietary fiber, such as fruits and vegetables.”

Similarly, results from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study that were presented during the September 2021 virtual meeting of the American Society of Nutrition, also found a connection between a diet rich in plant-derived foods and better cardiovascular health. The study was comprised of 4,700 participants (Black and white men between ages 18 and 30 years old) who were followed for 32 years. “Researchers concluded that a diet mainly composed of plant-derived foods is beneficial for cardiovascular health,” Wong says.

2. Blood pressure control

Plant-based diets can lower blood pressure. “Various nutrients, vitamins and minerals, including dietary fiber, potassium, calcium and unsaturated fatty acids present in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can help lower blood pressure when eaten as part of a balanced diet with limited animal-based foods,” Wong says.

This was demonstrated in the INTERMAP study, a cross-sectional study that included 4,680 men and women, ages 40 to 59, in the United States, United Kingdom, Japan and China. “Consuming more plant-based foods while limiting animal-based foods, refined grains and sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with a lower blood pressure,” Wong says, but quality mattered too. This study “concluded that nutritional quality of the foods is as important as limiting animal-based foods.”

3. Lowered stroke risk

It’s often been said that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and that’s true with a plant-based diet. A 2021 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that “high-quality plant-based diets, that is, diets including leafy greens, whole grains and beans but less refined grains and added sugars may lower overall stroke risk in the long-term by up to 10%,” Wong says.

The study involved 209,508 women and men who were followed for more than 25 years and completed dietary questionnaires every two to four years. None of them had cardiovascular disease or cancer at the beginning of their participation.

4. Brain health

In addition to lowering risk of stroke, a plant-based diet can reduce your risk of developing dementia and other age-related brain diseases. Recent research out of Boston University found that adopting the Mediterranean or DASH diet (designed to improve blood pressure) could also improve cognitive health.

Similarly, a 2019 population cohort study that included 16,948 Chinese people living in Singapore (ages 45 to 74 at baseline and interviewed again 20 years later) found that following a plant-based diet such as the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet in midlife could result in a 33% lower risk of cognitive decline later on.

Inflammation is also understood to be a key component to the development of certain brain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “A plant-based diet is one of the most anti-inflammatory diets ever known,” Freeman says. “How can I cut inflammation, which is the root cause for all diseases? It’s eating right, exercising and getting rid of mental stress. It’s connecting with others and sleeping enough. All these important things — and a plant-based diet is one of the mainstays here.”

5. Diabetes prevention and management

A diet that’s high in fiber and low in blood-sugar-spiking high-glycemic index foods has been associated with improved blood sugar control by improving your fasting blood sugar and cholesterol levels, Wong says. This is because “plant-derived foods contain dietary fiber, which helps stabilize blood sugar levels and lowers serum cholesterol and triglycerides, lowering the risk for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, respectively.”

A 2020 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that whole grains improved hemoglobin A1c and C-reactive protein levels, two measures of diabetes severity and heart disease risk. “The review of 22 randomized controlled trials also found that whole grain rice lowered triglycerides levels, and whole grain oats decreased total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels,” Wong says.

A plant-based diet can help you avoid developing diabetes or improve your experience with the disease if you already have it by helping you control your blood sugars.

6. Weight management

Keeping excess weight off is also a key selling point for a plant-based diet. Managing your weight can also help you avoid chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Obesity is a risk factor for both those conditions and many others, so controlling your weight is an important piece of staying healthy for the long term.

“The low glycemic index and high fiber content (of plant-based foods) help to keep you fuller longer, which helps to control appetite,” Parker says.

A 2016 study published in the American Journal College of Nutrition measured several body composition measures among 351 participants following three eating patterns for one year: a Mediterranean diet with added extra virgin olive oil, a Mediterranean diet enriched with nuts that have a 40% total fat content (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts), and a control group following a low-fat diet. Participants following the enriched Mediterranean diets had significant improvements in body composition and total body weight when compared with the other groups.

7. Digestive health

Eating more plants also benefits the microbiome in your gut, because the microbes that live there are fueled by plants — or more specifically the fiber that’s in plant-based foods. “Fiber provides many of the prebiotic foods needed by the gut biome to live and protect the intestinal lining from invasion of pathogens into the body,” Parker explains.

Freeman notes that there are “data suggesting that when you eat a plant-based diet, your gut flora thrives in a way that it doesn’t thrive on an animal-based or omnivore diet.”

But getting enough fiber is a concern for many people. “Dietary fiber, which is a nutrient derived from plants, has been labeled a dietary component of public health concern in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025,” Holley explains. “The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends dietary reference intakes (DRIs) of 21 to 38 grams of fiber per day for adults, depending on age, but many of us fall short in reaching these amounts.”

8. Kidney health

Typically, patients with chronic kidney disease have been warned to limit intake of fruits and vegetables to avoid hyperkalemia, or elevated potassium levels that can increase risk of heart attack. However, recent research is turning that advice on its head.

A diet that contains “more fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein may offer health benefits to people with chronic kidney disease or who are on dialysis,” Wong says. Choosing more plant-based protein over animal proteins may “slow the progression of kidney disease without affecting the person’s nutritional status.”

9. Reduced cancer risk

A plant-based diet may also lower the risk of certain types of cancers, such as pancreatic, colon and possibly others. That’s according to the Adventist Health Study, a 15-year study of 100,000 California-based Seventh-Day Adventists, a religious group that follows a mostly plant-based, whole-foods diet and largely abstains from alcohol, smoking and eating pork.

Launched in 1973, conducted at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine and sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, the study suggested that Seventh-Day Adventists had a reduced risk of developing several types of cancer in part because they abstained from alcohol and tobacco, but also because of their diet. Among other findings, the study suggested that eating fruit three or more times per week equated to a two-thirds reduction in risk of developing lung cancer versus rarely eating fruits. Similarly, eating legumes, raisins, dates or dried fruits at least three times per week reduced the risk of pancreatic cancer.

A previous eight-year study of California Seventh-Day Adventists noted that they had an average life expectancy 4.5 years longer than the California population as a whole, also largely attributed to their diet, as well as lack of alcohol and tobacco consumption.

10. Immune system health

Plant-based diets and the variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other compounds can support immune system health. “For example, you may experience lesser symptoms and recover from a flu infection” faster if you’re following a plant-based diet, Wong says.

Typically, the brighter the colored fruit or vegetable, the more immune-boosting antioxidants it contains. “Look for plant-derived foods such as leafy green vegetables (kale, collard greens), butternut squash, walnuts, mushrooms, beans, persimmons, apples and oranges,” she says.

11. Lowered severe COVID-19 risk

Putting the immune system support idea into current context, research has found that people eating plant-based diets likely will fare better if they contract COVID-19. Wong points to a 2020 study that examined 31,815 cases of COVID-19 and found that cases in adults who consumed more plant-based foods had a 41% lower risk of developing severe COVID-19 (i.e. cases requiring hospitalization and respirator support).

“The lead researcher notes that participants were surveyed before vaccines were available and before the development of the Delta variant,” therefore the risks and benefits might have changed since the study was concluded, Wong explains.

Still, it stands to reason that because the phytonutrients found in plants support a healthy immune system, a plant-based diet could offer protection against various infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

12. Environmental health

Lastly, a plant-based diet is a healthier alternative for planet Earth, Wong says. “The 2019 EAT-Lancet commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems states that choosing plant-based foods would help sustain our planet and feed healthy foods to our growing population. Incorporating more wholesome, plant-derived foods — more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes (beans, peas, lentils) in your meal — allows you to engage in sustainable eating, and this means you are supporting your health and our planet when purchasing and eating food.”

Freeman agrees, saying “you can get everything you need nutrient-wise from a plant-based diet. It’s a very nutrient-dense, environmentally friendly and cost-effective plan. In short, there’s really no shortage of benefits for doing this.”

Do you have to kiss all meat goodbye?

The evidence is clear that plant-based diets can support improved health in a variety of ways. But does adopting a plant-based diet mean never eating meat again?

Not necessarily, says Holley. “Plant-based diets are versatile and can be adapted based to individual preferences and needs. For example, one person may include certain animal proteins, like eggs or fish, while another may exclude them completely.”

For the diet to be considered plant-based, “fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains remain the primary sources of nutrients,” Holley says.

That said, she also notes that “plant-based diets are less about what we should be eliminating and more about what should be increased.” The Mediterranean, Nordic and Ornish diets are all good examples of plant-based diets that can be adapted to individual tastes and preferences.

In fact, Dr. Brian Quebbemann, a weight loss expert, bariatric surgeon and founder of the N.E.W. Program in Orange County, California, notes that including small amounts of meat or other animal products in your diet can be a smart move. “Many of the benefits of a vegan diet have been also shown to be true of a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (someone who eats dairy and eggs) and a Mediterranean diet.”

There is a potential downside to going entirely plant-based, Quebbemann adds. “Exclusively plant-based, or vegan, diets are lacking in vitamin B12, which is very important in early brain development, central nervous system health and also in maintaining a healthy supply of red blood cells.” If you’re going 100% vegan, speak with your doctor or a registered dietitian about supplementing with B12.

“Exclusively plant-based diets also are very low in iron, increasing the risk for anemia as well as increasing the risk of developing early cognitive decline,” he says, so talk with your doctor about iron as well to make sure you’re getting enough.

All that said, Quebbemann notes that both of these problems “can be prevented through diligent use of supplements, or simply by eating a plant-based diet that includes limited quantities of eggs, dairy products, fish and sometimes chicken.” Smart planning is the key to making it all work.

Adopt a healthy lifestyle.

Improving your diet is a very effective way of reducing your risk of developing chronic diseases and better managing them if you have them. “A small serving of plants provides a wealth of nutrients,” Parker says. “They’re the best investment in your health.”

But in addition to eating right, “regular physical activity, moderate to no alcohol consumption and abstaining from the use of tobacco products should all be considered in combination with a plant-based diet to really see these benefits,” Holley says.

12 benefits of a plant-based diet:

— Heart health.

— Blood pressure control.

— Lowered stroke risk.

— Brain health.

— Diabetes prevention and management.

— Weight management.

— Digestive health.

— Kidney health.

— Reduced cancer risk.

— Immune system health.

— Lowered severe COVID-19 risk.

— Planetary health.

More from U.S. News

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12 Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 11/15/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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