The Health Benefits of Eating a Plant-Based Diet

Learn more about eating plant-based and how to start getting more whole foods and plants into your diet.

The idea of eating "plant-based" sounds healthy and trendy, but what exactly is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet means eating more whole foods and plants—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds. One of the best parts about eating a plant-based diet is that you can design it to fit your lifestyle. For some, a plant-based diet excludes all animal products (also known as a vegan diet). For others, it's just about choosing more foods from plant sources than from animal sources. It's a nice way to make plants a main part of your diet without completely eliminating dairy, eggs, meat and fish (you can just eat less of these). Regardless of which variation you want to follow, there are some standout benefits to eating more plants.

Health Benefits of Eating a Plant-Based Diet

Better Nutrition

Plants are healthy, and most of us don't eat the recommended amount of fruits and veggies, so making the majority of your diet plant-based will up your produce consumption. Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Fiber is a nutrient that most of us don't get enough of, and it has tons of healthy perks: it's good for your heart, your gut and your blood sugar. A 2020 review in Clinical Nutrition found that consuming a vegetarian diet was associated with a reduced risk for negative health outcomes when compared to an omnivorous diet.

A Healthier Heart

Eating a vegetarian diet may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, and may improve other risk factors for heart disease by lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, and improving your blood sugar control. Eating plant-based can also help quell inflammation, which raises your risk of heart disease by promoting plaque buildup in your arteries.

Lower Diabetes Risk

Eating a vegetarian diet can help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes, according to a 2021 study published in Advances in Nutrition. This is because plant-based diets improve insulin sensitivity, help with weight management and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Plant-based foods also have more fiber than animal foods, and increased fiber intake has been associated with a decreased diabetes risk, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Diabetes Investigation.

Decreased Cancer Risk

Research consistently shows that regularly eating plenty of fruits, veggies, legumes and grains—aka plants—is associated with a lower cancer risk. Plus, those disease-fighting phytochemicals in plants have also been shown to prevent and thwart cancer. And, don't forget, studies also show an association between eating red and processed meats and increased cancer risk, especially colorectal cancer. So there's benefit not only from just eating more plants, but also from replacing some less-healthy foods with plant-based foods.

How to Start Eating a More Plant-Based Diet

Raw Vegan Zoodles with Romesco

Pictured recipe: Raw Vegan Zoodles with Romesco

OK, so you're inspired now, right? Let's turn that into action. For starters, aim to make sure half of your lunch and dinner plate is always filled with vegetables, and vary the variety and color of the veggies you choose. But there's more that you can do. Try to incorporate some of these small(ish) changes.

Seek Out Healthy Fats

Unsaturated fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated—are the kind that are good for your heart. Most of the good food sources of these come from plants: olives and olive oil, avocado and its oil, nuts and their butters and oils. Substitute these occasionally (or always, if you prefer) for butter, ghee or lard, and you're automatically leaning toward more plants. Aim to include plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids too, such as flaxseeds and chia seeds.

Eat Vegetables at Breakfast

If you want to increase your veggie intake, start with breakfast. Since it's not a meal you'd usually think about as veggie-filled, adding some here makes it easier to hit your daily quota. Try adding spinach to your eggs, blending cauliflower in your smoothie or eating a breakfast salad.

Have a Vegetarian Dinner Once a Week

Usually we put an animal protein at the center of the plate at dinnertime, so going vegetarian one day a week is one way to cut back. If going meat-free for a meal feels like a stretch, then shift your perception and see if you can make animal protein more of a condiment than an anchor to your meal one night a week.

Try Fruit for Desserts and Snacks

Many types of desserts are typically made with animal products: butter and eggs are common ingredients in cookies, cakes and ice cream. Switching over to fruit sometimes can satisfy your sweet tooth with a whole food, and also give you an extra serving of plants.

Try One New-to-You Plant Food a Week

This is a great way to increase the amount of plants you're eating while also adding variety to your diet, which means you'll be getting a different balance of good-for-you vitamins and minerals. Some less-common veggies to try: bok choy, rutabaga, squash blossoms, celeriac and kohlrabi.

The Bottom Line

When eating a plant-based or plant-forward diet, you'll likely reap benefits from cutting down on meat (plant foods have less saturated fat and usually fewer calories), but it goes beyond what you're limiting. What you're eating and adding to your diet is significant too. Eating more plants means getting more of those good-for-you vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber—many of which are nutrients we typically fall short on.

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