Plant-based diets are skyrocketing in popularity. With so much concern about the environment, animal welfare, and individual health, it’s not surprising that plants are taking center stage. Plant-based foods are nutrient dense, and they contain phytonutrients and fiber, components you don’t find in animal-based foods. It’s these components that may explain the health benefits of plant-based foods.
Even if you’re not ready to go entirely plant-based, adding more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other plants to your diet may give you some health benefits. In fact, there are a number of health conditions that eating a plant-based diet may lower the risk of. Let’s look at five that are backed by science.
High Blood Pressure
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a common health problem in people over the age of 50 and it’s often a silent disease. But over time, elevated blood pressure can damage almost every organ in your body, especially the heart, kidneys, and visual system. If you visit a physician and you have persistently elevated blood pressure, they’ll likely place you on blood pressure medications. However, sometimes a plant-based diet combined with exercise is a better prescription for mild or borderline high blood pressure readings.
In one study, researchers looked at blood pressure readings from runners who ran an average of 48 miles each week and who also consumed a Western diet. They compared the readings to sedentary non-athletes who ate a vegan diet. Despite a lack of exercise, the vegans had lower blood pressure readings.
Several other studies also show that vegans and even vegetarians on average have lower blood pressure readings and a reduced likelihood of developing hypertension.
It’s not yet clear what component of the vegan diet is protective. It may be the phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory activity in plant-based foods, or the fiber component of fruits and vegetables may be a factor. Also, some vegetables, particularly leafy greens, are rich in magnesium, a mineral involved in blood pressure control.
A number of studies link plant-based diets with lower odds of developing cardiovascular disease. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found subjects who adopted a plant-based diet enjoyed a 19% reduced risk of heart disease and an 11% reduction in mortality from all causes. These risk reductions are important since cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in Western countries.
Why are plant-based diets protective for the heart? Hypertension is a leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease and eating a plant-based diet improves blood pressure control. Plus, fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory activity. Scientists now know that inflammation is a leading contributor to heart and blood vessel disease, since it damages the inner walls of arteries that carry blood to the heart.
Type 2 Diabetes
Another health problem that shortens people’s lives is type 2 diabetes, a condition marked by insulin resistance and elevated blood glucose readings. Like untreated hypertension, poorly controlled diabetes is damaging to organs throughout the body, including the kidneys, eyes, heart, brain, and blood vessels.
A number of studies show plant-based diets lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and even help prevent complications associated with existing type 2 diabetes. Observational studies also show that people who eat a vegetarian diet have a 2-fold lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with those who eat an omnivorous or carnivorous diet.
Another way plant-based diets lower the risk of type 2 diabetes is because of their impact on body weight. People who eat plant-based foods are less likely to be obese. Why is that important? Obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes and losing weight can sometimes reverse this chronic condition. Plant-based foods are nutrient dense but also low in calories, an ideal combination for health and weight control.
Switching to a plant-based diet may even help the wheezing, cough, shortness of breath, and other symptoms that go along with asthma. In fact, studies link a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with reduced odds of developing asthma. Plus, people who eat a diet rich in plants seem to enjoy better control of their symptoms. It’s possible that antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in fruits and vegetables may explain this finding. Plus, people who eat a vegan diet don’t consume milk. Some research suggests that milk worsens asthma symptoms.
Low-grade inflammation is a trigger for or contributes to almost every chronic health problem in humans. In fact, some studies show that people who consume more plant-based foods have lower levels of inflammatory markers. Plants are an abundant source of bioactive chemicals that reign in inflammation. If eating a plant-based diet reduces inflammation, it may explain why a diet rich in plants protects against other health problems.
The Bottom Line
Plant-based diets are rich in nutrients and diets rich in plants reduce inflammation. This may lower the risk of the health conditions mentioned above and, possibly, other health problems as well.
If you eat a plant-based diet opt for whole, unprocessed plant-based foods and avoid over-processed vegan junk food. The most benefits come from eating plants in their whole, unaltered state. Enjoy a variety so you get a full array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Even the pigments in plants have benefits, so choose colorful produce in a rainbow of colors. By doing this, you’ll get the synergy of various phytonutrients working together to keep you healthy.
If you don’t want to commit to going vegetarian or vegan, you can still enjoy health perks. Add more plant-based foods to your diet, lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds to your diet, and choose plant-based foods in many colors and shades. Your body will reap the rewards!
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