First of all—what is a plant-based diet, anyway? It’s been defined in the wellness world in a few different ways: for some, it means being more strict than a traditional vegan diet by eliminating all animal products plus all processed and refined foods. For others, it means making plant-based foods the—ahem—base for their diet, but not eliminating meat or refined food entirely. It doesn’t have the ethical ramifications of veganism, which is both a way of eating and a system of belief, though. Plant-based diets are all about the way you eat for your health, without the philosophical component.
Let’s simplify it and say that plant-based refers to a diet that is animal product and by-product free, and avoids processed and refined foods. So, why should someone skip the burger and milkshake in favor of a salad and a green smoothie?
Want to live longer? Bear in mind that plant-based diets eliminate a lot of the junk food trends that can crop up in vegan and vegetarian diets (Oreos, for example, are technically vegan-friendly). But if you stick to eating plant-based, you have a better chance of living a longer, healthier life. Study after study has looked at plant-based eaters in large-scale studies, and found that those who ate more plants and less refined food and processed sugars were associated with reduced mortality. In fact, one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that the mortality rate for non-vegetarians was almost 20 percent higher than that for vegetarians and semi-vegetarians.
Back in 2008, the World Health Organization reported that 63 percent of deaths were attributed to non-communicable chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Poor diet is a factor in all of those diseases, according to the Institute of Food Technologists. However, the institute noted a high consumption of plant foods is associated with lower incidents of chronic disease—improving your chances of a healthier, longer life.
Eating mostly—or entirely—plant-based is a positive for the planet, especially when you’re dropping the processed foods and moving towards a more sustainably-sourced diet. Even a decade ago, the research was clear: what people are eating is as important to their greenhouse-gas emissions as the car that they drive. (That contributes to a pretty sizable footprint for most Americans!) A 2013 study showed that consuming a plant-based diet results in a "more sustainable environment and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.” So skipping the hot dog might help the planet as much as your arteries.
The addition of more veggies—and subsequent vitamins, minerals and fiber—to your diet when you shift to plant-based can also work to combat inflammatory diseases, diabetes, and even cancer. It’s so universally acknowledged now that the American Dietetic Association updated their position paper on vegetarian diets, concluding that well-planned plant-based eating is healthy for adults, infants, children and adolescents and can help prevent and treat chronic diseases like heart disease, some cancers, obesity and diabetes. For hypertension, CHD, and stroke, a 2012 review in the European Journal of Nutrition demonstrated that there is convincing evidence that increasing consumption of vegetables and fruit reduces the risk. And you’ll substantially lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a 2016 study that analyzed diet data from more than 200,000 male and female health professionals.
Plant-based diets can often tip the scale in the right direction, partially for the healthy content of a whole-food-focused vegan diet, but also because being strictly plant-based eliminates many of our traditional diet pitfalls. Most fast food is off-limits, ice cream and milk chocolate are off the table, and binge-eating a whole pizza becomes a thing of the past. Studies have looked time and time again at plant-based diets, and dozens have concluded that a vegetarian diet promotes weight loss more effectively than tradition low-cal dieting alone. In fact, in 2015, a study showed that a vegan diet devoid of animal products produced better weight-loss results than dieters on 11 other weight-reduction plans. Then, in 2017, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed that a vegetarian diet was not only more effective for weight loss, it also improved participants' metabolisms by reducing muscle fat.
Even upping your greens, fruits, and legumes can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a study that looked at18 different countries and the dietary data from each. Additionally, studies have shownthat swapping animal protein for plant protein (yes, it exists—including in spirulina!) and opting for a more plant-based diet can decrease total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol.
The good news? You don’t have to completely convert to a plant-based diet to take advantage of many of the benefits of this diet and lifestyle. If you’re not planning to go vegan for specific health or ethics-based reasons, simply shifting to less meat and refined sugars—and more greens and veggies—on your plate will give you a lot of the same benefits as a 100-percent plant-based diet… It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision.