From fat-free to sugar-free to gluten-free, it can be hard to discern what exactly is considered healthy these days.
Do we avoid carbs? Do we embrace only good fats? Should we just avoid all of the health fads and trends in general? Luckily, there is one diet pattern that doctors, nutritionists, and scientists generally agree on for its ability to help prevent disease and even lengthen your life.
This diet, which is naturally packed full of fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants, is a plant-based diet.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is simply one that is based more on plant sources like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, rather than on animal sources such as meat and dairy.
Within a plant-based diet, there are varying degrees, from a vegan approach (which excludes all animal products, including eggs and dairy) to a vegetarian one (which generally excludes meat, poultry, and fish products but includes eggs and dairy) to more flexible options like a pescetarian diet (which just excludes meat and poultry).
However, when referring to a plant-based diet, instead of focusing on restrictions, it mainly means a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, with minimal meat, dairy, eggs, and refined foods. Author Michael Pollan summed up this type of diet in his book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” in seven simple words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Why is it popular?
This not a new trend. This way of eating has been around for centuries, and is part of the reason we know it has such dramatic health benefits.
Studies have found that certain populations living in the Mediterranean have significantly lower risks of cancer compared to those living in the United States and northern Europe, and researchers have attributed this to their dietary habits. The Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits and veggies and low in red meat, seems to have a particularly protective effect.
Additionally, regularly including olive oil and whole grains in their diets helps to keep them in good health. Read on to discover the scientifically-backed benefits of a plant-based diet, and then get ready to live your best life yet.
1. Prevent chronic diseases
Turns out, an apple a day really does keep the doctor away. A diet high in fruits and veggies can help to prevent chronic diseases. Numerous studies have linked plant-based diets to protection from cancer and diabetes.
Why? A plant-based diet is naturally low in saturated fat, high in fiber, and lower in added sugar than ones that include animal foods and processed foods. This means they can help you to lose weight, improve blood sugar, and lower blood pressure.
And the good news is, you can start small and still see some big changes. A 2016 study published in PLOS Medicine found that even little tweaks to your diet can help you to lower your risk of diabetes. Simply cutting your daily servings of animal products from six to four was linked to lower diabetes incidence.
Studies have also shown that even if you have diabetes, adhering to a plant-based diet can help to reverse the disease and improve blood sugar. That is the power of the plant!
2. Improve your mood
Beyond reducing your risk for cancer and diabetes, eating a diet packed with produce can actually increase your happiness levels, according to studies.
So while we all know noshing on berries and broccoli is good for your physical health in the long run, it’s also good for your mental well-being. A recent 2016 study from the American Journal of Public Health found that increasing your consumption of fruits and veggies over a two year period was “equal in size to the psychological gain of moving from unemployment to employment.”
One possible reason? A plant-based diet provides necessary antioxidants that fight inflammation and phytochemicals that help to regulate chemicals in the brain that control mood. Talk about the cherry on top.
3. Protect your heart
Help your heart with a helping of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Eating a plant-based diet can lower your blood pressure. Studies have also found that vegetarianism can reduce your risk of heart disease by up to one-third.
In fact, a diet full of greens can actually “turn off” certain genes that make you more susceptible to heart disease, studies have found. Sounds unbelievable, but such is the power of plants. Known as epigenetics, or the science of how your lifestyle interacts with your genes, these studies have found that certain genetic variations that increase your risk for heart disease can be countered by lifestyle changes such as a plant-based diet.
4. Keep off excess weight
Say goodbye to calorie counting and gimmicky diets. A plant-based diet requires no special tools or tricks, just fresh produce, grains, and legumes. In addition to the above health and mood benefits, you’ll probably drop a couple pounds.
A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics evaluated 15 different plant-based diets and found that, on average, participants dropped about 7.48 pounds (and this includes those who didn’t stick to the diets). The high-fiber content in a plant-based diet can lead to feelings of satiety, which helps with weight loss.
5. Longevity and energy
Kale, yeah! Those who follow a plant-based diet may indeed live longer lives. Studies show that vegetarian diets are associated with a lower risk of death, and a Mediterranean-style diet has been shown to be associated with longer telomere length, which translates into better health and longevity.
This could be because a high dietary intake of polyphenols, which are found in fresh produce, is associated with longevity.
The bottom line
What we put into our mouths each day not only feeds our bodies but also nourishes us, down to our cells. Food is what sets us on a path toward health or disease.
As the saying goes, we are what we eat. And studies show that what we eat, in particular leafy greens and antioxidant-laden produce, can help to prevent disease, up our energy levels, and even boost our mood. So get out your blender and cheers to that with a green drink or two!
Recipe for a plant perfect green smoothie
- 1 cup ice
- 1 cup almond milk
- spoonful of almond butter
- handful of chopped kale or spinach
- handful of chopped berries of choice
- Blend and enjoy!