Medically reviewed by Blair Persyn, MS, RDN, LDN, CNSC
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet? Why has there been a huge move towards plant-based eating? Well, the evidence is clear — consuming more whole plant foods can be beneficial to your health. Let’s discuss the reasons.
1. Improved Heart Health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with one person dying every 34 seconds. High cholesterol and high blood pressure are the biggest risk factors for heart disease, along with diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, and excess alcohol use. (1)
Saturated fats are highest in red meat, cheese, whole milk, butter, ice cream, lard, fried foods, and baked goods. Diets high in these fats are pro-inflammatory and can lead to elevated LDL cholesterol levels (aka "bad" cholesterol). (3, 4, 5) These sources are naturally reduced and replaced with healthier fat sources when following a whole food plant-based diet.
Some of the best plant-based fat sources for heart health are:
- flax seeds
- chia seeds
- hemp seeds
- olive oil
A diet low in saturated and trans fats is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancers. (6, 7) Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats (particularly omega-3s) and high-quality carbohydrates reduces the risk of heart disease. (8, 9) Additionally, soluble fiber, which can only be found in plant-based foods, can help lower LDL-cholesterol. (10, 11)
While there has been some recent controversy on whether or not saturated fats are as bad as we've thought, the majority of research still backs the harmful effects of diets high in saturated fat.
2. Weight Management
More than two-thirds of the US population is overweight or obese. And while body size isn't necessarily causative for health problems, there is an association between overweight/obesity and chronic illnesses including metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. (12)
3. Reduced Inflammation
Reduced inflammation is one of the biggest benefits of a plant-based diet. Excessive free radicals in the body contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation that can eventually lead to chronic illness and cancer in the long term.
Alternatively, diets high in saturated fat, red meat, processed meat, high-fat dairy, refined grains (like white bread), desserts, and sugary beverages (including fruit juices) are associated with higher levels of inflammation.
4. Better Blood Sugar Control
Plant-based diets are inversely associated with diabetes risk and insulin resistance. (20) Possible reasons include:
- increased intake of fiber and antioxidants
- food-microbiome interactions
- decreased intake saturated fat, AGEs, nitrates, and heme iron. (21)
Higher intakes of red and processed meats are associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes. (22) A meta-analysis showed that a 5% increase in energy from animal protein was associated with a 12% increase in risk of type 2 diabetes. (23)
Additionally, whole food vegan diets have been shown to be an effective treatment for reducing body weight and HbA1c (a marker of blood sugar) in people with diabetes. (24)
Including a source of fiber, healthy fats, and protein with meals and snacks can help with satiety and blood sugar control.
5. Lower Risk of Cancer
A comprehensive meta-analysis showed vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with a 8% and 15% decreased total cancer risk, respectively. (25) Fruits and vegetables have a preventative effect on cancer development due to:
- vitamin C
- vitamin E
- folate. (26)
For more information on the role of folate, check out this article on folate and cancer risk that I was quoted in.
Alternatively, several compounds in red and processed meats have been associated with increased risk of cancer.
Cooking meats at high temperatures forms compounds called HCAs and PAHs, which can cause DNA mutations that lead to cancer development. Heme iron (found in red meat) can also cause oxidative stress and DNA damage and has been associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer. (26, 27, 28)
Furthermore, nitrates in processed meats are associated with an increase the risk of cancer. For more information on this, check out this article on nitrates and cancer that I was quoted in.
6. Improved Gut Health
The biggest factor that influences our gut microbiome is our diet. The effects that different foods have on different strains of bacteria are very complex and this area of research is still emerging.
However, the general consensus on the microbiome and gut health is that more diversity of bacteria is more optimal for health. In observational studies and clinical trials, higher bacterial diversity is seen in vegetarians. (29)
Whole food plant-based diets are high in fiber from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Fiber and phytochemicals, which are both only present in plant foods, promote beneficial effects on our gut bacteria.
Fiber ferments in the gut to produce short-chain fatty acids, which are important for immune function and blood-brain barrier integrity. (30)
An imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut is linked to a ton of health conditions including but not limited to:
- peptic ulcers
- irritable bowel syndrome
- non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- inflammatory bowel disease
- heart disease
- autism (30)
In one clinical trial, participants were placed on either an animal-based diet or a plant-based diet for 5 days and they found that the animal-based diet increased bacteria resistant to bile acid, particularly B. wadsworthia, which has been identified as a trigger for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (i.e. Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease). (31)
Different metabolites in the gut are linked to animal-based vs plant-based diets. Short-chain fatty acids are linked to a plant-based diet while TMAO and secondary bile acids are linked to an animal-based diet.
Secondary bile acids are associated with inflammatory bowel disease, liver cancer, and colon cancer. TMAO is associated with cardiovascular and neurological disorders. Carnitine and choline are precursors for TMAO and are mainly found in animal foods.
Vegetarians and vegans have a different gut bacteria composition than omnivores and have a diminished capacity to produce TMA, the precursor to TMAO. Therefore, plant-based diets lower levels of TMAO. (32)
7. Lower Blood Pressure
Another one of the benefits of a plant-based diets is lower blood pressure. While the exact mechanism isn't known, plant-based diets may contribute to lower blood pressure due to:
- lower body weight
- lower sodium consumption
- higher potassium consumption
- less oxidative stress from antioxidant consumption
- higher bioavailability of nitric oxide (a vasodilator)
- the beneficial effects on the microbiome. (34)
8. Lower Risk of Kidney Disease
The two leading causes of kidney disease in the US are high blood pressure and diabetes. (33) As explained above, plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, which results in a lower risk of kidney disease.
The National Kidney Foundation agrees that plant-based diets not only help prevent the development of kidney disease but also help slow the progression in those who have already been diagnosed. Reasons for this include:
- the role of plant-based diets on blood pressure and diabetes
- animal-based foods increasing acid load and putting stress on the kidneys
- phytates in plant foods helping to bind phosphorus so that less is absorbed (in contrast to animal foods which have highly bioavailable phosphorus). (35)
9. Environmental Sustainability
Going fully plant-based may not be an option for you at this time depending on your current situation. However, adding more plant foods to your diet and decreasing your overall meat consumption even slightly can benefit your health and the environment.
A 2018 study found that a vegan diet had the lowest environmental impact, followed by vegetarian diets, and then diets that included varying amounts of meat. (38)
Another study published in 2018 found that shifting to a plant-based diet could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and land use requirements for food production, and could help to mitigate climate change. (39)
Plant-based diets can also have benefits for water conservation, biodiversity, and other aspects of environmental sustainability. The reduction in environmental footprint was proportional to the degree of animal product avoidance. (40)
10. Ethical Considerations
Many people choose to adopt a plant-based lifestyle for ethical reasons related to animal welfare. The production of animal products can involve significant levels of animal suffering and cruelty.
For more information on animal welfare and what goes on at factory farms, visit the links below:
- The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)
- Animal Welfare Institute (AWI)
- The Humane League
- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
- The Humane Society
Will A Plant-Based Diet Provide All Necessary Nutrients?
The positive health outcomes of a plant-based diet strongly outweigh any potential negatives, as long as there is consideration to include a variety of vegetables, fresh fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
While vegan diets could be low in certain nutrients without proper planning, nutrient inadequacies are seen across any type of diet when not properly planned. (41) Vegans can get plenty of plant-based protein sources from soy, peas, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Omega-3s, iron, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, iodine, choline, and vitamin B12 can all be obtained from plant-based foods and supplements when a vegan diet is balanced and adequate. (42) Supplementation of specific nutrients may be necessary in some cases.
If you need help knowing whether or not you are getting all of the nutrients you need on a plant-based diet, I offer virtual one-on-one nutrition counseling for plant-based nutrition and chronic disease management for Texas residents. If you are in another state and are interested in nutrition counseling with me, contact me so we can determine our options. Always consult with a physician or registered dietitian for your own unique needs.
Summary of The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
As you can see, the benefits of a plant-based diet involve several systems of the body, including improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, inflammation, kidney health, gut health, and cancer risk.
Does this mean everyone who eats meat will get a chronic illness? Of course not. And I wholeheartedly believe in intuitive eating, which involves eating what is right for you. However, the science behind the benefits of a plant-based diet can be used as gentle nutrition guidance for you on your intuitive eating journey.
If you eat meat or follow an omnivorous diet, start by focusing on adding more plant-based foods. It's advantageous to eat plant-based foods as the basis of your diet, whether you decide to also include animal products or not.
Ready to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet?
Check out my list of vegan pantry staples to stock your kitchen.
Plant-Based Meals & Recipes