Plant-based for Health blog graphic

Plant-Based for Health

In this blog post, we’re going to talk about the basics of a plant based diet.

My purpose is not to convince a die-hard meat eater to give up meat therefore I won’t be diving into the “why meat is bad and plants are good” debate.  My purpose today is to highlight the plant-based way of eating and how it promotes a healthy lifestyle.

What is plant based eating?

Many people use the terms plant based and vegan interchangeably, but they would be doing so incorrectly.  By definition, eating a plant based diet would be consuming the majority of your foods from plants.  Some say 80% or more and others say 90%.  There is even another camp that says 100%.  The focus is really on consuming more plants than animal products and ideally animal products should make up 20% or less of your daily intake.

If you consume a 2,000 calorie/day diet, this would equate to 400 calories or less coming from animal products.  This would look like one of the options below:

  • 3 eggs
  • 5 oz of steak
  • 9 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 1 medium sized pork chop
  • 2 ½ cups full-fat milk
  • 3 oz of cheddar cheese

The ultimate goal of plant based eating is to, eventually, no longer consume animal products or consume them rarely.

How does this differ from being a vegan?

Vegans consume zero animal products.  They also strive to NOT own tangible items that are made from animal products (shoes, clothing, etc).  Vegans do not believe that killing animals for pleasure or consumption is ethical and also think of the environmental impacts of farm-raised animals (we’ll save the environmental piece for another time). 

SUMMARY:  Plant based is for health while vegan is more for ethics, but health and environment are also factors.

Most vegans are not the judge-y characters you see on the internet.  Most vegans don’t openly tell others they are vegan due to the backlash that can be received as the word “vegan” tends to be a dirty word for some. 

Here’s a truth for you.  I am a vegan.  Many don’t know that I am because it was my choice to become vegan (for ethical reasons) and the opinion of others does not matter to me (on this topic anyway).  I am also a nutritionist (obviously).  I have clients that eat meat and I have clients that are plant based.  I do not preach to my clients about the vegan lifestyle.  I educate my clients and help them become healthier within the confines of their preferred eating pattern whether than includes or excludes meat.  So, now that’s done.  Let’s move on to the fun stuff! 

Health Benefits         

I’ll say this now, just as I’ve said a million times before…you can be healthy and eat meat if you do so in moderation.  There are people that consume a large amount of animal foods due to medical reasons (autoimmune conditions, epilepsy, etc).  We won’t be diving into those conditions here….and yes, you can treat those conditions therapeutically on a plant-based diet as well, it’s just a bit trickier. 


plant based diet txt

The sole purpose of consuming a plant-based diet is to increase the amount of plants being consumed and reduce the amount of processed and animal foods being consumed.  Most people do not consume enough plants and by switching to a plant-based diet, they are essentially forcing themselves to consume more. Studies have shown that a plant-based way of eating is effective in treating obesity, Type 2 Diabetes (T2D), high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. 

Following a plant-based style of eating greatly reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD).  Various peer reviewed studies show that an increased intake of whole fruits and vegetables have a cardio-protective effect.  One such study showed an inverse association between vegetables, specifically broccoli, carrots, spinach, lettuce, yellow squash, and tomatoes in regards to the risk for cardiovascular disease.  This means that by increasing your intake of these vegetables, you’re helping to reduce your own risk of heart disease.  The lowest risk is associated to increased amounts, specifically 8 or more servings per day.  I know that seems like a lot, but a serving is ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw.  If you eat a cup of cooked broccoli, that’s 2 servings!  A salad is usually 3-4 servings!

A healthy intake of plant sourced fats also provides heart protection.  By consuming things like nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados, you are helping to reduce your LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and increase your HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol).  If you’d like to learn more about cholesterol, read my blog of cholesterol here.  There’s also a getting started guide to reducing your cholesterol in the blog!

Unsure yet if you buy into the hype?  Here's another study for you.  There was a trial called The Lifestyle Heart Trial.  This trial took a group of individuals that had been diagnosed with heart disease and fed them two diets: plant-based and the American Heart Association diet.  What they found was the individuals who consumed a plant-based diet had an 82% regression in atherosclerosis and 91% reduction in angina episode frequency.  That’s insane!  So, these people followed a plant-based diet and reversed 82% of their clogged arteries and reduced chest pain.  For those that followed the AHA diet, 53% had a progression of atherosclerosis.  This means their arteries continued to become clogged.

You want a heart healthy diet…eat more plants!

Not only is a plant-based diet good for the heart, it’s good for treating Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) as well.   When people think of T2D, they think of too many carbs.  The reality is, T2D is synonymous with too much sugar.  When we consume refined carbohydrates like pastries, French fries, fast food, etc, these foods metabolize very quickly in the body causing a rush of glucose followed by a rush of insulin.  We store this glucose in various parts of the body to be used later for energy.  When we consume too much of this and our energy stores are full, we store the excess as fat.  When this cycle continues, we develop something called insulin resistance.  Our body becomes confused by the constant cycle of glucose ingestion and insulin release and later the body can’t keep up with the cycle and begins to reduce its output of insulin.  This allows for the glucose to free flow throughout the body causing a spike in blood sugar and wreaking havoc on the system. 

It’s important to remember though, carbs are not the devil when it comes to T2D. Yes, people can go on a low carb diet and put their T2D in remission.  A byproduct of this is usually an increase in cholesterol due to limited whole grain and insoluble fiber intake.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but something you should be aware of.  If you’re interested in learning about cholesterol, you can read my previous blog on it here

Some individuals don’t want to give up carbs when trying to get a handle on their T2D.  And they don’t have to!! What matters is the type of carbs we eat versus how many.  Each carb we consume has a glycemic index (GI).  High GI carbs break down quickly and can cause a glucose spike.  However, low GI carbs breakdown slowly and produce a more manageable glucose response in the body.  Several studies have shown that those with T2D treated with a high carb plant-based diet composed of low GI carbs had an improved glucose response, lower cholesterol levels and a reduction in triglycerides.  

potato GI

Another study addressed vegetarian diets in the treatment for T2D.  What they found was out of 652 diabetics in the study, 212 were on insulin and 197 were on medication for T2D.  The rest were not yet on medications or insulin.  In the end, 39% of those on insulin were able to come off insulin and 71% on medications were able to cease the use of medications.  This was directly related to the maintenance of T2D with a vegetarian diet.

Summary

There are so many other health benefits to consuming a plant-based diet.  I only touched on the top 2 concerns for most people.  Following a plant-based diet is an easy way to get more fruits and vegetables in your life, not to mention heart healthy whole grains and fats too!  Remember…the goal is to reduce animal consumption but you don’t have to completely eliminate it on a plant-based diet.  Many continue to consume fish and eggs but exclude chicken, pork, and beef. 

All the studies showed that decreasing animal food intake while increasing whole grains, vegetables fruits, and healthy fats can prevent cardiovascular disease and T2D.  It can actually help treat and reverse some of it as well. 

Sources:

Coulston, A. (1999). The role of dietary fats in plant-based diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70(3), 512-515. Retrieved November 6, 2017, from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/70/3/512s.long

Hu, F. (2003). Plant-Based Diets and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3), 544-551. doi:10.1201/9781420005905.ch9

Jenkins, D., Kendall, C., Marchie, A., Jenkins, A., Augustin, L., Ludwig, D., . . . Anderson, J. (2003). Type 2 diabetes and the vegetarian diet. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,78(3), 610-616. Retrieved November 5, 2017, from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/610S.long

Tuso, P., Stoll, S. R., & Li, W. W. (2015). A Plant-Based Diet, Atherogenesis, and Coronary Artery Disease Prevention. The Permanente Journal, 19(1), 62–67. http://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/14-036

Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS

I'm Sunny! I'm a board-certified clinical nutritionist with an MS in Clinical Nutrition. I help individuals reduce fatigue, eliminate bloat, and lose weight by healing the digestive tract and balancing hormones. I provide individual and group nutrition consultations nationwide. Join my closed Facebook group today! https://www.facebook.com/groups/140571826548289/

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