The Power of Plant-Based Diets: A Closer Look at the Health Benefits

Dr. Matthew NagraArticles, Heart Disease, Plant-based Diet

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In the field of nutrition science, the benefits of plant-based diets continue to gain attention and support from health professionals and researchers alike. As a naturopathic doctor and long-time advocate for plant-based nutrition, it feels important to discuss the health benefits of adopting a plant-based diet as the evidence rolls out. I take pride in examining and sharing the results of new studies, allowing my health-minded community to learn alongside me as we employ minor or major dietary adjustments to substantially improve our long-term health. With all that said, let’s dive into some recent studies showing the perks of plant-based eating. 

Reduce Your Risk of Chronic Diseases With Dietary Changes

Did you know that replacing even modest amounts of certain animal-based foods with plant-based foods may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), type 2 diabetes (T2D), and all-cause mortality?

How Simple Food Swaps Affect CVD

One compelling systematic review and meta-analysis compiled data from 37 publications, focusing on the impact of substituting animal foods with plant-based alternatives. The findings were impressive, highlighting that even modest replacements—such as switching 50g of processed meat daily with 28-50g of nuts, 50g of legumes, or 30g of whole grains—can significantly lower the risk of developing CVD. Similarly, replacing daily consumption of one egg with nuts or a teaspoon of butter with olive oil also correlates with a reduced risk of CVD.

Diet, Diabetes, and All-Cause Mortality

The study further reveals that substituting total red meat with nuts or whole grains lowers the risk of developing T2D. This substitution also lowers the chances of all-cause mortality, which is the risk of dying, period, during the course of the study. But the benefits don’t end there. The study also found that replacing processed meat, unprocessed red meat, eggs, and dairy products with plant-based foods such as nuts, legumes, and olive oil was also associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality. The list goes on and on! Feel free to read about the significant findings I didn’t cover above here

My main takeaway from these findings is that the benefits of replacing certain animal products with healthy plant-based foods are consistently unveiling themselves. While this does not necessarily apply to all animal foods, such as fish, it shows the need for more research as different types of animal-based foods impact our bodies and health in various ways. 

A Comparative Study: Vegans, Flexitarians, and Omnivores

This recent study conducted by German researchers compared the risk factors of developing CVD based on diet. In this study, 94 healthy participants aged 25-45 were categorized based on their dietary habits into vegans, flexitarians (those consuming less than 50g of meat or meat products per day), and omnivores (consuming more than 170g of meat or meat products daily). The participants had been consuming their respective diets for at least one year, providing a lens into the risk factors associated with different dietary groups. 

With the highest diet quality scores, vegans led the pack, followed by flexitarians, then omnivores. It’s worth noting that aside from their meat, dairy, and egg intake, vegans consumed the most plant-based meat, milk, and dairy alternatives, as well as legumes, nuts, and seeds. Flexitarians consumed more plant-based milk, nuts, and seeds than omnivores, while both vegans and flexitarians consumed a higher intake of vegetables compared to omnivores. Interestingly, while alcohol and sweet consumption was lowest among vegans, no significant differences in soft drink intake were observed across the groups.

The Results

Now, let’s dive into the main results. When examining health markers, there were no significant differences in body weight, body mass index (BMI), or body fat percentage between vegans and flexitarians. However, the flexitarians ended with a significantly lower BMI and body fat percentage than the omnivores; while the vegans had a lower body fat percentage than omnivores. This could be due to differences in diet and exercise habits, as the vegans and flexitarians were also more physically active than the omnivores, on average.  

Moreover, vegans demonstrated lower fasting insulin levels, with all groups presenting similar fasting glucose and HbA1c levels. In terms of cardiovascular health, flexitarians and vegans displayed better metabolic syndrome (MetS) scores and arterial function than omnivores, with vegans also having the lowest total and LDL cholesterol levels.

Try Plant-Based Foods for a Healthier Future

These results demonstrate the power plant-based eating holds to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and improve overall health markers. Whether you identify as a vegan, a flexitarian or want to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet, it’s clear that even relatively small adjustments can lead to significant health benefits. And the better you feel, the easier it will be to make more mindful choices and embrace the richness of plant-based nutrition.