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Three huge health benefits of a plant-based diet (plus a few healthy surprises)

While the word vegan might bring about images of your “hippie” coworker or millennial niece – drinking soy lattes and passing up Thanksgiving turkey – the growing trend of plant-based diets are rooted in burgeoning research.

As our understanding of nutrition grows, science has become particularly interested in what foods lead to long-term health. And with an uptick in trends like consumer consciousness, as well as an increased demand for natural or organic products, it should come as no surprise that veganism is on the rise.

But does the science match the hype? When it comes to the health benefits of a plant-based diet, it seems there are plenty of positives to munch on.

  1. Heart health

Nearly 2,200 people die from heart disease every single day. That’s one person roughly every 40 seconds, making cardiovascular complications the number one killer in the U.S. – and growing.

Heart disease can morph in a number of forms. Think big and small, from heart attacks and strokes to the “canaries in the coal mine” that lead up to them, high-blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Research shows these chronic illnesses are not only reversible with a plant-based diet but pack a serious preventative punch if maintained over time.

A plant-based diet is naturally cholesterol-free. Most folks know there are two types of cholesterol, the “good” kind (HDL) and the “bad” kind (LDL). While your body needs both to optimally run, bad cholesterol is only found in animal products like poultry, eggs, red meat, and dairy. Your body is able to flush some LDL out through the liver, but by over-consuming animal products, that LDL has nowhere to go, building up in your arteries and leading to a range of heart complications.

In contrast, a plant-based diet contains virtually no LDL cholesterol. Over time, a diet based in fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, and complex whole grains has been proven to reduce cholesterol levels without the need for lifelong medication.

Plant-based diets lower blood pressure. When your heart has to work overtime to pump blood, and that blood in return pushes too hard against artery walls, you have yourself high-blood pressure.

Similar to their cholesterol-lowering properties, vegans and vegetarians consistently test as having some of the healthiest and most consistent blood pressure numbers. That’s because plant-based eating eliminates many of the saturated fats, processed sugars, and – as detailed above – LDL cholesterol typically related to poor circulatory health. And while variables like age, sex, stress levels, and daily activity significantly affect blood pressure, a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle provides a non-drug dependent option for natural numbers.

  1. Weight & Energy

Those looking to lose weight in a healthy and sustainable manner have a lot to gain from plant-based eating.

Contrary to the stereotype, plant-based diets optimize lean muscle development. That means your body is better able to burn fat and convert leftover compounds into muscle, balancing your weight ratios. Done mindfully, a plant-based diet low in saturated and omega-6 fats trims your waistline and your risk for weight-linked diseases like diabetes, sleep apnea, and strokes.

Vegetarian and vegan diets have additionally been shown to boost cell metabolism. As your cells break down nutrients, they create enzymes, which your body responds to with blood sugar and hormone regulation. Research has shown plant-based diets maximize this healthy cell enzyme production, regulation, and energy distribution.

  1. Cancer

Vegans and vegetarians have about half the risk of developing cancer as their-meat-and-dairy eating counterparts.

In particular, the chances of colon, liver, pancreatic, and other gastrointestinal cancers are significantly reduced with a plant-based diet. Research suggests it’s the high-fiber, low-fat makeup of foods like veggies, fruits, beans, and legumes – versus the high fat, zero-fiber compounds of meat and fish.

What’s more, fruits and veggies are rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants, the “free radical” fighting agents that help combat mutating or cancerous cell growth.

Additional benefits
Plant-based diets have been shown to boost your mood. In a series of corporate environmental studies, researchers found workers who ate a plant-based diet across a six-week trial reported lower rates of anxiety and depression and higher task productivity.

Plant-based diets improve your skin by introducing more water and inflammation-fighting vitamins onto your plate, correcting imperfections and providing a younger, more even skin glow.

Plant-based diets have even been tested to boost sexual health. Clearer arteries and lowered blood pressure mean blood flows quicker and easier to your extremities – including those needed for sexual potency and arousal.

Common Concerns

Many people express concern that they won’t meet whole nutritional needs when switching to a plant-only diet. Specifically, key macros like protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, and Vitamin B12 get a bad rep when it comes to a plant-based diet.

I reassure my patients it’s virtually impossible to be protein deficient in the modern, western world. Protein is found everywhere. From grains and beans like oatmeal, chickpeas, black beans, lentils, and quinoa to common veggies like artichokes, green peas, broccoli – even spinach – to walnuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds, shortcutting yourself in protein is a rare concern for vegetarians and vegans alike.

Omega-3s are part of the three major fat types you hear so much about, essential for things like nerve functions and heart health. Seeds and nuts, in particular, are high in Omega-3s, with plant-based goodies like chia and flax seeds, berries, cabbage, mangoes and melons amongst just a few common sources of plant-based Omega-3s.

Vitamin B12 is admittedly the trickiest, though hardly a reason to forgo plant-based eating. Produced by gut microbacteria found inside animals’ digestive tracts, B12 doesn’t synthesize naturally in plants. Luckily, there is a range of B12-fortified vegetarian and vegan options, from milks to soy products to breakfast cereals to your regular daily capsule.

There’s no perfect, “one-size-fits-all” diet. Too often in my professional practice, patients come in wanting a “magic solution” – a daily pill, a one-and-done procedure, or a mindless solution to cure their conditions.

Yet in a well-balanced, plant-based diet, patients can expect two things: Their nutritional needs not only met but exceeded, and cost-effective meals proven to prevent a range of chronic conditions.

And while changing your eating habits to a plant-based diet may seem far from “mindless,” it’s a solid step toward proven lifelong health.

If you would like expert advice on your own personal meal planning, we offer nutrition counseling services at Digestive Care Specialists. Schedule an appointment by calling 301-288-1319.