A plant based diet is associated with many health benefits including: lowering risk for some chronic diseases, lowering risk for obesity and being a sustainable eating pattern for the environment. A plant based diet can be called a vegetarian diet.
Vegetarian diets can vary; strict vegans eat no animal foods. Some vegetarians will eat dairy, eggs, honey or seafood.
About 3% of the US population follow a vegetarian diet, and another 10% of the US population follow a vegetarian inclined diet or sometimes referred to as a flexitarian diet (1).
Eating a plant based diet that is mainly made up of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and heart healthy fats provides the body with a rich source of many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber.
These foods are also naturally low in unhealthy fats, added sugars and artificial flavorings.
However, eating a plant based diet filled with vegetarian friendly junk food will not offer any health benefit over following a traditional Western diet.
In order to reap the most benefit from a plant based diet, fill up on natural foods and eat a variety of foods.
Following a plant based diet can be beneficial for weight loss (2). Vegetarians and vegans have lower rates of obesity compared with people who eat a traditional diet.
A 2006 review article (3) suggests weight loss in vegetarians can occur independent of exercise and around 1 pound per week for weight loss.
A 2015 study (4) put overweight adults into a weight loss program for 6 months following either: a vegan diet, meat eating diet, semi vegetarian diet or a pesco vegetarian (fish is allowed).
Researchers found the vegan group lost the most weight after 6 months and had the lowest intake of fat compared to the other groups.
This study suggests the stronger you follow a plant based diet, the more it may help with weight loss.
Following a vegetarian or vegan diet has been associated with improving heart health. A 2006 review article (5) suggests the key is to focus on following a healthy diet, not just following a vegetarian diet for improved heart health.
Eating a plant based diet should mean you are getting high levels of potassium, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium and phytochemicals (6) along with a high intake of dietary fiber.
Eating nutrient dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts can provide these nutrients that can be beneficial for heart health.
Treating high blood pressure involves increasing your intake of potassium, magnesium and calcium. Eating a varied plant based diet can boost your intake of these nutrients. Eating a plant based diet is associated with lower blood pressure levels.
Following a plant based diet like the Mediterranean diet has also shown to be beneficial for heart health. This type of eating pattern is rich in fibrous plant foods and focuses on heart healthy fats like nuts and olive oil as the main fat sources.
This eating pattern is low in sugar, meats and dairy.
Following a plant based diet may help lower risk for obesity, and it may also help lower risk for type 2 diabetes. Some research (7) indicates people following a plant based diet have about half the risk of getting type 2 diabetes compared to people following a non-vegetarian diet.
The biggest benefit for lowering risk of diabetes may be attributed to higher intakes of fiber and nutrients following a plant based diet.
Eating foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates is not recommended for lowering risk of type 2 diabetes, even if the food is vegetarian.
Concerns with meat and cancer risk
Eating a plant based diet can provide a high amount of natural antioxidants. These antioxidants from foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help protect cells from damage and possible carcinogens.
The American Institute for Cancer Research (8) recommends to limit consumption of red meats and avoid processed meats like hot dogs, ham, salami, bologna, etc. People who tend to eat more red and processed meats may not eat as many plant based foods.
Switching out red and processed meats with plants may be beneficial for lowering risk of certain cancers.
Nutritional concerns with a plan based diet
Following a plant based diet that focuses on nutrient dense foods can provide recommended intakes of many nutrients including: fiber, vitamins C & E, B, folic acid, magnesium and potassium.
However, some nutrients like iron, B12 and calcium may be harder to reach because animal based foods are richer sources of these nutrients.
Eating a variety of foods and fortified products can help you reach the recommended level of these harder to get nutrients.
You can get adequate intakes of all nutrients following a plant based diet, but some people may need to supplement certain nutrients.
Speak with your health care team for more guidance on following a plant based diet and if you should be aware of any supplemental concerns.
Following a plant based diet has been associated with many health benefits including heart health, blood sugar regulation, reducing cancer risk and lowered risk for obesity.
In fact, some research suggests the more you follow a plant based diet, the more it may help for weight loss.
Following a vegetarian or vegan diet will not guarantee to be beneficial for your health. The key is still eating the right kinds of foods and in moderate portion sizes. Plant based foods can still be high in sugar and empty calories (candy, chips, fries, etc.).
Healthy plant foods include: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and heart healthy oils.
If you are thinking about eating more of a plant based diet, it may be beneficial for your health. The key is to eat a variety of natural foods for the best source of nutrients.
Speak with your healthcare team for more individual concerns on your diet and your health.