You’ve probably read a lot about Paleo, ketogenic and gluten-free diets, but one of the most buzzworthy eating styles at the moment is the plant-based diet. All-star athletes and Hollywood royalty are making it trendy, while a slew of meat-bashing documentaries are popping up on Netflix. And, of course, there is the famous pronouncement from author Michael Pollan, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” But we know what you are thinking — Tofu, really? Well, hear us out before you dismiss a plant-based diet as only for tree-hugger types.
It’s important to understand plant-based diets and vegan diets aren’t necessarily the same. “Plant-based eating can mean different things to different people,” says dietitian Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT, author of Plant-Based Nutrition (Alpha, second edition, 2018). “But what it stresses is eating a diet centered around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds in infinite combinations.” You can do this but still give yourself an allowance for meats and dairy in your diet. So unlike vegetarian and vegan, which are defined by what they exclude, a plant-based diet is defined by what it includes — everything, as long as you emphasize more foods grown in soil.
Even the government has given the thumbs up to the plant-based trend. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has stated: “A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health-promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current average U.S diet.”
Still ambivalent about slicing away some of your meat consumption? Here’s why more beans and less beef may just be the best thing you can do for your health, fitness gains and the environment.
Add Years to Your Life
Plant-based eating is on the rise, and a wealth of research links eating more chickpeas at the expense of chicken with protection against various maladies, including heart disease, diabetes, depression and certain cancers. But you don’t need to go cold Tofurky and bid adieu to meat entirely to reap the health-hiking benefits of a plant-based diet.
In a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, Canadian researchers found that simply replacing one to two servings of animal protein with a plant-based option each day resulted in improvements in a few different cholesterol markers, including total LDL (“lousy”) cholesterol, which can help keep your heart beating strong. Similarly, another study found that people who ate a plant-based diet most of the time decreased their risk of developing heart failure by 42 percent over a four-year period compared to people who ate a plant-stingy diet.
A large JAMA Internal Medicine study discovered that people who consumed plant proteins like lentils and beans more often but who were not necessarily vegetarian or vegan experienced lower rates of early death compared to heavy animal protein eaters, particularly from heart disease. And a 2018 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition report involving nearly 100,000 people showed that obtaining more of our ticker-friendly monounsaturated fats from plant sources might offer up more protection against heart disease than when we get more of these fats from animal sources.
Also, in a Finnish study, men whose diet favored plant protein had a 35 percent lower risk for Type 2 diabetes than those who obtained most of their protein from meat.
With all this research in mind, British researchers concluded that its country could slash billions of dollars from its health-care costs if just 10 percent of the population switched to plant-focused eating patterns, such as the flexitarian or Mediterranean diet.
“The diet is health-promoting both for what it provides — a wealth of disease-fighting phytonutrients and fiber — as well as for what it helps minimize, such as high intakes of saturated fat when you swap out animal products,” Hever notes. With that said, a study in The Journal of Nutrition showed that people who ate higher amounts of plant-based foods consumed a more diverse range of edibles, and this brought about an improved nutrient adequacy of their diets. And that is a recipe for longevity.
Trim Your Belly
If you want to deflate your waistline, it might be a good idea to toss more kale and lentils into your shopping cart. People who went on a veg-heavy diet not only lost twice as much body fat than those on a carnivorous low-calorie diet, but they also benefited from greater drops in muscle fat, which may improve metabolic health, per a 2017 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
More good news for your six-pack pursuit: Spanish researchers found that over a 10-year study period, people who ate a pro-vegetarian diet — rich in food coming from plant sources like legumes, vegetables, fruit and grains — slashed their risk of developing obesity by almost half compared to those who were the least pro-vegetarian with a dietary pattern rich in animal food.
“Most plant foods have more volume for fewer calories than animal-based foods, so they do a better job at promoting fullness without leaving you feeling deprived,” says dietitian Matthew Ruscigno, a vegan endurance athlete and chief nutrition officer at Nutrinic.
Indeed, research shows one reason for the tummy-trimming perk is that most omnivores eat a greater number of calories per day than vegetarians and other plant-heavy eaters who tend to gravitate toward less calorie-dense foods like beans, vegetables and grains. “And don’t forget that plants are where you’re going to get your dietary fiber, which plays a big role in the satiety equation to help control overeating,” Ruscigno adds.
But you need not banish meat from your diet entirely to sharpen your physique. A 2018 study published in the journal Circulation randomly assigned 108 people to follow either a calorie-controlled lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (which includes dairy and eggs) or a Mediterranean diet, an eating pattern that focuses on plant foods but allows for moderate meat consumption, for a three-month period to see whether one was better than another with respect to weight-loss success. In the end, both diets brought about similar drops in body-fat mass among participants.
Love Your Bugs
We all have billions of microorganisms living inside of us, and we are now starting to fully understand the importance of maintaining a healthy colony of bacteria within. Beyond good digestion, a robust and more diverse microbiome is being linked to everything from lowering blood pressure numbers and improving mental health to helping with weight loss and better nutrient absorption. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the diet you eat shapes your inner ecology.
The gut profile of a person on a plant-heavy diet appears to favor protective species at the expense of harmful ones. “One mechanism might be that the higher amounts of fiber in a plant-heavy diet nourishes the good bacteria to increase their numbers,” Ruscigno says. Research shows that a low-fiber diet, as many meat-centric ones can be, may promote the loss of certain species of bacteria in our guts over time, and it can be hard to get them back.
Also, new research suggests that polyphenols, chemicals found in colorful plant foods, are worked on by various microbiota in our bodies, which converts them to bioactive compounds that may improve certain health measures. This could be one reason why drinking polyphenol- laced red wine has been shown to have heart and brain-boosting benefits. The upshot is that many of the health-boosting properties of a plant-based diet may be partially explained by improvements in the makeup of our microbiome.
Boost Your Game, Maybe
A burgeoning number of professional athletes credit plant-based eating with getting leaner, competing with a lot more energy and benefiting from better recovery. Many staples of the American diet — pizza, fries, chips, donuts, burgers — can leave you feeling sluggish on the gym floor or field. It’s not totally surprising that once people focus on eating more whole foods of plant origin, improved performance metrics follow.
“Plant foods can have an excellent mix of carbohydrates for fuel and the protein for muscle building that athletes need,” Ruscigno notes. “Additionally, the antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables may help with tissue repair and recovery.”
While there remains a need for more research-backed proof regarding a plant-focused diet and performance, a 2016 Arizona State University study found that on the whole, vegetarian athletes experience no detriments in lean body mass levels or measures of endurance and strength fitness compared to their omnivore counterparts.
Help the Planet
You’re not the only one who will benefit from eating low on the food chain more often. The well-being of Mother Nature will also get a boost by leaving your meatarian days behind.
A report in the journal Environmental Research Letters suggests that going from an omnivore to plant-forward diet could reduce your personal carbon emissions by about 0.8 tonnes per year.
That’s a bigger difference than replacing your gas guzzler with a hybrid.
A 2018 study in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition involving 34,000 adults determined that those following a diet with a higher pro-vegetarian score, in other words eating more plants and less meat, had an eating pattern with a much lower environmental impact — as measured by greenhouse gas emissions, energy demand and land use. The consumption of organic food added even more environmental benefits to the plant-based diet. The Worldwatch Institute reports that livestock production is responsible for up to 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Production facilities can require a large amount of natural resources to operate and generate significant levels of pollution, so if more people consumed less pork and more parsnips, it could help keep the planet from overheating.
Save Wads of Cash
Yes, buying sprouted cashew butter and Amazonian berry powders are expensive, but so to is grass-fed beef and wild salmon.
“The truth is that a plant-based diet can be easy on your food budget as many staple foods that fit into this category are among the most cost-effective,” Hever says. “Items like beans, lentils, whole grains and seasonal produce deliver a lot of nutritional bang for your buck.”
According to findings of a Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition study, a plant-based, extra-virgin olive oil diet (similar to the Mediterranean diet) can cost about $750 less per year than following the more meat- and dairy-focused U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPlate diet, while also supplying higher intakes of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.