Plant-based eating is catching on in Western countries as we are starting to notice the benefits for our health, the planet, animal welfare, and even our bank accounts.
But what does plant-based mean exactly?
If you are on a plant-based diet this would refer to the majority of your diet being plant foods. This doesn't imply that you never eat animal products rather the majority of your foods come from plant sources. This includes grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, combined with few or no animal-based products.
Plant-based diets have been shown to promote longevity and even reduce the risk of major chronic diseases. The long-term health effects are evident but can vegetarian diets provide benefits in the short-term too?
Read on below to find out how plant-based diets can benefit you.
Including more plants in your diet has been shown to be an effective strategy in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.
This is profound as cardiovascular disease represents the most significant cause of mortality today (1).
Even without exercise, turning to a predominantly vegetarian diet has been shown to improve cardiovascular markers. This is supported by several mechanisms such as improved glycemic control, lowered blood pressure, and decreased blood lipids (2).
Of course, these diets include complex carbohydrates and whole fruits and vegetables, not refined carbohydrates.
Okay, you may be thinking; but I've been told to cut carbs to help balance my blood sugar, what gives? We hear ya!
Carbohydrates have been recently vilified as the cause of diabetes , however, the science is saying otherwise. Research shows that plant-based diets can actually improve metabolic conditions (2).
When it comes to carbohydrates it's the quality that matters the most. Refined and processed carbohydrates like french fries, white bread, pizza dough, breakfast cereals, and pastries, are not the beneficial carbohydrates we are talking about, and those definitely can worsen diabetes (3).
Whole plant foods act several ways in the body to benefit blood sugar control
They are rich in fiber, which slows the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, reduces oxidative stress, increases short-chain fatty acid production in the gut , and promotes satiety, making you eat less and feel more satisfied (4).
They contain high amounts of antioxidants, shown to improve secretion and enhance the ability to absorb glucose into the cell for energy (5).
They tend to be low in saturated fat and advanced glycation end products, which have been associated with metabolic syndrome (6).
As mentioned above, whole food plant-based diets can help improve blood sugar regulation as well as bring down inflammation, so it should not be surprising that weight loss is a common side effect.
One study found that a low fat plant-based diet had a role in preventing diabetes by improving fasting and beta-cell function in the pancreas (7).
Weight loss has been observed in plant-based studies even without calorie restriction and exercise, which means diet modifications do have a profound effect on weight control (9).
Plants are well known for their anti-inflammatory actions. Chronic inflammation is the driving force behind chronic disease and premature aging. The good news? Diet and lifestyle influence inflammation more than anything else which means there is a lot you can do!
Plants supply anti-inflammatory compounds such as flavonoids, polyphenols, and carotenoids which can neutralize free radicals and protect our cells from damage.
Eating more fruits and vegetables has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from any disease (10). In addition, populations who do eat mainly plant-based have the longest lifespans on earth.
Some of the most anti-inflammatory foods include berries, leafy greens, tart cherries, acai berry, pomegranate, and cacao.
Our gut microbiome has an influential impact on our health. Beneficial microbes fight pathogenic bacteria, produce short-chain fatty acids and vitamins, reduce inflammation, improve mineral absorption, support hormone production, and improve digestion and regularity.
What does our microbiome eat? You guessed it, plants! And more specifically, prebiotics.
You may have heard of probiotics before, but prebiotics are a little different. These compounds are a type of indigestible fiber that reach the colon undigested where they feed our beneficial microbes.
Prebiotic rich foods include garlic, onions, artichoke, chicory, leeks, cabbage, unripe banana, asparagus, oats, apples, and dandelion greens.
When you are eating the standard American diet and not enough fruits and vegetables, you may end up with dysbiosis, or an imbalance of good to bad bacteria. This can result in whole-body inflammation, hormonal imbalances, metabolic dysfunction, allergies, and infections (11).
If you aren't able to get adequate daily sources of prebiotics and probiotics there are many supplements you can include that combine the two.
Top tips for going plant-based
Well planned vegetarian diets can provide most of the nutrients we need however, certain vitamins and minerals are more difficult to obtain through a vegetarian or vegan diet, which is where supplementation can come in handy.
Commonly deficient vitamins and minerals include vitamin B12, iron, zinc, vitamin D3, and omega 3.
Soak your grains, nuts, and legumes
Grains, nuts, and legumes contain anti-nutrients that can block and inhibit mineral absorption as well as promote digestive discomfort. How do we minimize these effects? By soaking and sprouting! Sprouting nuts not only increases absorption in the intestines but also nutrient content of the food.
Soaking your grains and legumes before cooking them will help break down anti-nutrients, support digestion, and increase the assimilation of vitamins and minerals.
Vegetarian meals don't have to be boring, on the contrary, they can be quite delicious! There are so many plant-based alternatives to our favorite comfort foods so there is really no need to miss out. Experiment in the kitchen with some new recipes and make it fun!
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables
To ensure you are getting sufficient macro and micronutrients from a plant-based diet, it's important to create variety in your diet. Poorly planned vegetarian diets can put you at risk for deficiencies so make sure you are including unprocessed, fresh, whole plant foods and change it up daily!
Take it slow
You don't have to go completely vegan to reap the benefits of plant-based eating. If you eat meat everyday start with meatless Mondays or make the majority of your meals vegan during the day, and go from there. Progress is progress, no matter where you choose to start.
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.