Health Benefits of a Plant Based Diet
Vegan diets can provide all of the nutrients that a person needs along with offering an array of additional health benefits. This “diet” can eliminate some of the possible risks that research has associated with harmful animal fats. Research has linked the vegan diet with a range of health benefits, including those below.
Better Heart Health
Vegan diets can boost heart health in several ways. Eating fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes and fiber is linked to a lower risk of heart disease
A large scale 2019 study has linked a higher intake of plant-based foods and lower intake of animal foods with a reduced risk of heart disease and death in adults. Observational studies comparing vegans to vegetarians and the general population report that vegans may benefit from up to a 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure
Animal products — including meat, cheese, and butter — are the main dietary sources of saturated fats. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), eating foods that contain these fats raises cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Plant foods are high in fiber, which the AHA link with better heart health. Animal products contain very little or no fiber, while plant-based vegetables and grains are the best sources. Compared to the general population, vegans also tend to consume more whole grains and nuts, both of which are good for your heart
In addition, people on a vegan diet often take in fewer calories than those on a standard Western diet. A moderate calorie intake can lead to a lower body mass index (BMI) and a reduced risk of obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Lower Cancer Risk
According to a 2017 review, eating a vegan diet may reduce a person’s risk of cancer by 15%. This health benefit may be due to the fact that plant foods are high in fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals — biologically active compounds in plants — that protect against cancers. Additionally, eating legumes regularly may reduce your risk of colorectal cancer by about 9–18%. What’s more, vegan diets generally contain more soy products, which may offer some protection against breast cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer report that red meat is “probably carcinogenic,” noting that research has linked it primarily to colorectal cancer but also to prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer.
The agency also report that processed meat is carcinogenic and may cause colorectal cancer.
Eliminating red and processed meats from the diet removes these possible risks.
People on a vegan diet tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those following other diets.
The researchers behind a 2015 study reported that vegan diets were more effective for weight loss than omnivorous, semi-vegetarian, and pesco-vegetarian diets, as well as being better for providing macronutrients.
Many animal foods are high in fat and calories, so replacing these with low calorie plant-based foods can help people manage their weight.
It is important to note, though, that eating lots of processed or high fat plant-based foods — which some people refer to as a junk food vegan diet — can lead to unhealthful weight gain.
Read more about the vegan diet and weight loss here.
Lower Blood Sugar Levels and Improve Kidney Function
Going vegan may also have benefits for type 2 diabetes and declining kidney function.
Indeed, vegans tend to have lower blood sugar levels, higher insulin sensitivity and up to a 50–78% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Studies even report that vegan diets lower blood sugar levels in diabetics more than the diets from the American Diabetes Association (ADA), American Heart Association (AHA) and National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP).
Other studies report that diabetics who substitute meat for plant protein may reduce their risk of poor kidney function.
What’s more, several studies report that a vegan diet may be able to provide complete relief of systemic distal polyneuropathy symptoms — a condition in diabetics that causes sharp, burning pain.
Richer in Certain Nutrients
If you switch to a vegan diet from a typical Western diet, you’ll eliminate meat and animal products. This will inevitably lead you to rely more heavily on other foods. In the case of a whole-foods vegan diet, replacements take the form of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, nuts and seeds.
Since these foods make up a larger proportion of a vegan diet than a typical Western diet, they can contribute to a higher daily intake of certain beneficial nutrients.
For instance, several studies have reported that vegan diets tend to provide more fiber, antioxidants and beneficial plant compounds. They also appear to be richer in potassium, magnesium, folate and vitamins A, C and E.
However, not all vegan diets are created equal. For instance, poorly planned vegan diets may provide insufficient amounts of essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine or zinc.
That’s why it’s important to stay away from nutrient-poor, fast-food vegan options. Instead, base your diet around nutrient-rich whole plants and fortified foods. You may also want to consider supplements like vitamin B12.
Reduce Pain from Arthritis
A few studies have reported that a vegan diet has positive effects in people with different types of arthritis.
One study randomly assigned 40 arthritic participants to either continue eating their omnivorous diet or switch to a whole-food, plant-based vegan diet for 6 weeks.
Those on the vegan diet reported higher energy levels and better general functioning than those who didn’t change their diet.
Two other studies investigated the effects of a probiotic-rich, raw food vegan diet on symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Both reported that participants in the vegan group experienced a greater improvement in symptoms such as pain, joint swelling and morning stiffness than those who continued their omnivorous diet.
One of the lesser-studied areas in how vegan diets can affect an individual is neurobiology and cognitive function. Studies that have focused on this have found mild or moderate improvements when patients afflicted with migraine, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis consumed a vegan diet. These studies are confounded by not accounting for the gluten content of the plant-based diet and by small sample sizes.
Studies looking at specific nutrients show some signs that vegan diets can be beneficial for cognition and mental health. Intake of phytochemicals, which appears to be higher in vegans, is associated with beneficial effects on mental health. In contrast, lower intake of vitamin B-12, which is common in vegans, is associated with detrimental effects on the neurologic system and cognitive health, such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Again, supplements may be a positive addition where necessary.
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