Not all people are conscious about what they eat, and many of us merely consume whatever food we want as long as they’re palatable and can satisfy our hunger. While our food choices are entirely personal, some people — the vegan society — view them as a way of life. Ethical, environmental, and health reasons may influence their diet.
Around the world, there’s a rapid growth in people identifying themselves as vegan, especially in countries like the US, the UK, and Germany. Studies reveal that in the last 15 years, the United States has seen a whopping 300% increase of plant-based eaters, and nearly 3% of Americans are now vegan. At the same time, approximately 4.8% of the UK’s population has a plant-based diet, while Germany boasts around 1.3 million vegans as they lead a vegan revolution in Europe.
Although once considered a fringe concept, the plant-based diet has become increasingly popular over the years. Whether it’s for the animal’s sake or to protect our environment, the idea of cutting back on meat and eating plants alone has gone mainstream, and it seems people are finally catching on.
And it isn’t all that surprising since people are not switching to a plant-based diet just to save the planet but also to keep themselves healthy. In this article, we’ll explore the possible health benefits you can get from eating plants.
Table of Contents
What is a plant-based diet?
Going plant-based is not so much a diet but rather a general approach to eating. There’s no need to stress about counting calories or worry about daily nutritional intake. In essence, it’s simply about eating more plant-based foods and limiting or avoiding foods from animal sources.
However, there are many different interpretations of this.
Here are some types of plant-based diets:
- Vegetarian Diet
Vegetarians may still eat eggs and dairy products (milk and cheese) but don’t eat meat like pork, beef, and chicken. They rely on plant-based protein instead of meat.
- Vegan Diet
Individuals following a vegan diet abstain from eating animal products altogether (including dairy products and honey) and exclusively eat plants.
- Raw Vegan Diet
Follow the same principles as a vegan diet, but they only eat raw plant-based foods.
- Flexitarian Diet
Some people are more flexible than others. They want to incorporate more plants into their diet while having some meat here and there.
Note: In this article, we focus more on the vegan diet.
5 Health Benefits of a Vegan Diet
Dieticians and food scientists alike have been advertising the health benefits of plant-based nutrition for so long, and the body of evidence to support that claim has been increasing significantly since then. Today, the vegan diet has already gone mainstream, and more people are buying into the notion that eating plants and eliminating meat from the diet is the healthier way of living.
Not only is there an extensive research database supporting the myriad health benefits of a plant-based diet, but also healthcare practitioners see tremendous results with their patients across multiple subspecialties.
Here are the top 5 benefits of eating plants that research supports.
Nutrient Density vs. Caloric Density
An increase in nutrient-dense food over calorically-dense foods highlights one of the benefits of plant-based nutrition. Many benefits of plant-based eating come from having a more significant amount of fiber, water, and fewer calories than processed foods.
How much energy a food can provide is determined by the number of calories it contains. Foods that have higher caloric content offer more energy, while low caloric foods provide less energy.
However, the concept of caloric density is much more complex, as it considers the weight of the food. The number of calories per pound measures the caloric density of a food. Not to mention is that calories are not illustrative of the nutritional value of a food. For reference, here’s a table of some main types of foods with their estimated caloric density:
|FOOD TYPE||CALORIES PER POUND|
|Non-starchy vegetables||100 cal|
|Potatoes / Starch vegetables||400 cal|
|Whole grains||500 cal|
|Beans and Legumes||600 cal|
|Ice cream||1,200 cal|
|Milk chocolate bar||2,400 cal|
|Nuts and Seeds||2,800 cal|
Did you notice that foods with the lowest caloric density are all plant-based? A calorie-dense food usually means it is high in energy but low in nutrients — empty calories. If you’re only eating foods with a density below 600 calories per pound, you can freely eat more (in volume), be less hungry, and still keep your calories in check.
The good thing about a plant-based (vegan) diet is that they are full of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. These are all beneficial substances found only in plants.
To give you an overview of nutrient density, let’s compare these two meals:
MEAL A (580 cal)
- 100g of White Bread (166 cal)
- 2.5 tbsp of Olive Oil (300 cal)
- 1 tbsp of Balsamic Vinegar (14 cal)
MEAL B (548 cal)
- 400g of Broccoli (140 cal)
- 300g of sweet potatoes (258 cal)
- 500g of Watermelon (150 cal)
Though Meal B is lower in calories, it offers more food volume-wise, which means you’re eating more while taking in fewer calories. Intake is helpful in weight loss.
The table below illustrates the nutritional content of the two meals.
Meal A (Left), Meal B (Right)
As you can see, not only does Meal B offer more satiety, but it is also significantly more nutritious. Having a vegan diet is not only going to help you lose weight without starving, but it also feeds your body with the necessary nutrients that keep you healthy.
An Example of Caloric Dense versus Nutrient Dense Foods
Increased portions can still promote weight loss.
What’s great about the vegan diet is that it is full of water-rich foods. And since there are no calories in water, you’ll naturally end up eating more food with relatively fewer calories. Plant-based foods are also rich in fiber, enabling you to feel full for longer because high-fiber foods take longer to digest.
Most people would have a hard time eating the same amount of calories in fruits and vegetables compared to processed foods. For example, calories for calorie, a person would need to eat more than 70 cups of spinach to match the burger and fries pictured above!
The vegan diet comprises food with the least caloric density among all types of diet. That is why eating plant-based foods, even with increased portions, will still help you lose weight.
Promotes insulin sensitivity and secretion
There’s a well-known link between diet and type 2 diabetes; weight is considered a significant risk factor. Since fatty tissues make cells more insulin resistant, the body cannot use glucose from your blood as efficiently for energy. The plant-based diet is quite helpful in preventing type 2 diabetes.
A study published in June 2016 in PLoS Medicine revealed that having a plant-based diet filled with high-quality plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, etc.) reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 34%. Another study found an increase in type 2 diabetes with non-vegetarians compared to vegans, a prevalence of 7.2% and 2.9%, respectively. Many of these results relate to a variety of proposed mechanisms of a plant-based diet.
Plant foods are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and magnesium, which may promote insulin sensitivity and secretion. Antioxidants such as polyphenols may inhibit glucose absorption and stimulate insulin secretion. It also reduces hepatic glucose output, which can be a form of treatment for type 2 diabetes. At the same time, fiber (found only in plants) modulates postprandial glucose response, which is critical in determining overall glycemic control.
Promotes stable microbiome and short-chain fatty acid
The gut microbiota composition between vegans/vegetarians and omnivores is different. The microbiota from a plant-based diet is more diverse. Changes in microbiota composition might be due to the bacteria consumed with the food or certain foods that allow a particular type of bacteria to overgrow. By promoting the development of a more diverse gut microbial system, a plant-based diet appears to be beneficial for human health.
But how do plant components influence gut microbiota?
Here’s a quick overview of the effects of plant food on the microbial system and short-chain fatty acids:
- Nutrient bioavailability
Consumption of food nutrients with lower bioavailability may be necessary to enrich nutrient delivery to the gut microbiota. This helps support the normal development and function of your microbiome.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is found only in plants. Humans can’t digest dietary fibers. Its primary purpose is to feed the digestive microbiome and expand your stools. Bacteria that are fiber-deprived may begin to eat away at your gut lining, increasing infection risks.
There’s a difference between the influence of plant and animal protein on the microbiome composition. For example, consumption of vegetable protein such as peas decreases the number of pathogenic microbes while increasing the good bacteria in the gut. These good bacteria are helpful in the reduction of gut inflammation and strengthening of the gut lining.
The type and amount of fats in your diet have a significant impact on the gut microbiome. Plant-based foods are naturally lower in saturated fat and are higher in mono and polyunsaturated fats. These fats are found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil and favor good bacteria that help reduce the risks of heart diseases.
Polyphenols are abundant in seeds, brightly colored vegetables, and green tea. They are naturally occurring protective plant compounds that have anti-pathogenic and anti-inflammatory effects. Polyphenols bode well with your good bacteria, and together, they protect your cardiovascular health.
- Short-chain fatty acids
Bacteria ferment fiber and produce short-chain fatty acids in the colon. They are involved in the metabolism of essential nutrients, reduce inflammation, and play a crucial role in preventing digestive diseases and colon cancer.
A Plant Based Diet Extends Life and Improves Body Functioning.
One can summarize all the other potential health advantages into one significant benefit: living longer. Studies have shown that a vegan diet lowers the risk for heart disease and all-cause mortality by 25%. Sticking to healthy plant-based foods increases the protective level.
Another study published in April 2018 revealed that eating healthy plant foods versus foods from animal sources extends the protection layer by another 5%. Less healthy foods include white bread, cake, and soda; meanwhile, more nutritious plant foods include whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
Research suggests that vegans and vegetarians in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan have a 9% lower risk of death from all causes compared to omnivores.
Living a Vegan Diet
Eating a vegan diet is linked to many health benefits, including weight loss, lower risk of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and even shows promise in longevity. However, like most diets, vegan diets vary in quality and may not always provide the same results. For instance, you can eat a vegan jelly bean, but it doesn’t mean it’s healthier.
So, to maximize the longevity-promoting effects of a plant-based diet, you should replace processed foods with whole plant foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. When done right, veganism can have enormously positive effects on your well-being.
While the foods you eat are entirely up to you, keep in mind that going vegan is a holistic approach to making the world a better place as you’re making yourself healthy and saving the animals and the environment in the process.