It’s not hard to understand what a plant-based diet is. It’s a dietary program that excludes all foods not made or derived from plants. Any food of animal origin is not part of a plant-based eating plan. While this kind of eating program may be healthier for you, there are still plenty of junk foods that are technically plant-based.
Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
- Reduced risk of diseases like diabetes and heart disease
Foods from plants reduce systemic inflammation that may lead to the development of serious chronic disease. Systemic inflammation is not the same as the inflammation from a cut on your hand. Temporary inflammation is healthy and signals the body that a part of it has become damaged and needs repair.
Systemic inflammation is different. It’s a chronic, widespread condition linked to not only diabetes, dementia and heart disease but autoimmune diseases as well. This would include lupus, vitiligo, psoriasis, Type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
In autoimmune diseases, the body attacks its own healthy tissues. Although many of these conditions do have a genetic factor, chronic inflammation may set the stage for increased risk.
- A stronger immune system
Plants contain compounds called antioxidants and phytochemicals. These are not found in animal foods. Antioxidants boost the immune system, helping your body to fight bacteria and viruses and to destroy rogue, mutated, damaged cells that may lead to cancer.
- All plants contain lots of fiber
Fiber is important to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. It also improves the overall health of the gut and its microbiome. The microbiome is made of microorganisms living in the intestines. When correctly balanced, these organisms keep pathogens in check, help to digest food, absorb nutrients and manufacture hormones and vitamins.
Most of the body’s immune system originates in the gut. It also manufactures a critical brain chemical called serotonin. This neurotransmitter is necessary for normal mood and feelings of happiness. Not surprisingly, low brain levels of serotonin are linked to depression. In fact, drugs like Prozac work to relieve depression by targeting this serotonin system.
Since plants are made mostly of fiber, a diet based on plants will automatically have a high fiber content. Fiber is also important for the healthy metabolism of plant sugar. Certain plant foods like fruits and vegetables contain a type of sugar called fructose.
Sugars, including fructose, have been linked to inflammatory diseases and accelerated aging. However, fiber changes the way the body handles the fructose and slows its absorption. Fructose in nature is always paired with fiber.
- Plant diets help to maintain a normal weight
People eating only plant foods tend to consume fewer calories, and this helps to keep weight within a healthy range. Overweight people have a higher risk of systemic inflammation and hormonal imbalance. This is linked to an increased risk in both cancer and diabetes.
Overweight people have a higher risk for at least 12 different types of cancer.
Risks of a Plant Diet
Most of the risks lie in vitamin and mineral deficiencies and in not getting enough complete protein.
Some plants contain compounds called phytates that interfere with vitamin and mineral absorption. Some phytates, for example, may bind with calcium and prevent the body from using it. Phytates are just part of many plants and are difficult to avoid, but it may be possible to reduce phytate levels by soaking or other methods.
Plants don’t contain the form of vitamin D most readily absorbed by the body.
Many plants are high in protein, but this protein is not complete. Only a very few plants, such as soybeans and quinoa, contain complete protein.
Incomplete Protein vs Complete Protein
Proteins are made of building blocks called amino acids. The human body requires 20 amino acids, nine of which are called essential because these must be obtained from foods. The body can manufacture the other 11 amino acids. When a food contains only some or none of the essential amino acids, it’s incomplete. Almost all proteins found in plant foods are not complete. Foods of animal origin are always complete protein.
It’s possible to pair plant foods together, for example, rice and beans, to provide complete protein. This means that of the nine essential amino acids, rice makes up for the missing ones in the beans and vice versa.
Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D
Vitamin B12 is found only in foods of animal origin.
It’s easy and very important to supplement a plant eating plan with vitamin B12. A deficiency of this nutrient can cause pernicious anemia to develop.
In case you’re wondering why vegetarian animals don’t need vitamin B12 supplements, it’s because they can manufacture the vitamin in their intestines. Humans cannot do this.
The type of vitamin D found in plant foods is called D2. The body best absorbs the D3 form found in animal foods. Supplements of D3 are available in nutrition stores and online.
Junk Food Plant Foods
Just because a diet is based on plants does not necessarily make it a healthy one. Refined white sugar is produced from plants. So is white flour, white rice and pasta. Although not sweet, refined flour and white rice are processed by the body as sugars. This is because these foods break down to their basic sugar composition during digestion.
Many meat substitutes are also not healthy. These are highly processed and a far cry from the natural plant-based ingredients, such as soybeans, from which they are made. They are often high in sodium and may contain MSG, a controversial flavor enhancer, as well.
Vegan desserts are often worse than their traditional counterparts. This is partly because although sugar is vegan, butter and eggs are not. These ingredients are replaced with fillers, gums and pectins to mimic the consistency of the real thing.
Coconut milk yogurt is high in saturated fat, contains little protein and may be high in sugar. Saturated fat is linked to heart and artery disease and is very high in calories.
When shopping for healthy plant foods, knowledge is king. Read labels carefully and don’t be fooled by terms like “made from plants” or “healthy.”
Talk to your Doctor
A licensed nutritionist can help you develop your new plant diet to include all nutrients your body needs. If you’d like to follow a eating plan based on plants, it’s best to consult with your doctor first.