The Benefits of Plant-Based Diets Briefly Explained

What is a plant-based diet? What are the benefits? Don’t you get way less nutrients? Isn’t it extremely expensive?

Obviously, there are countless myths and prejudices about a plant-based diet, and it can be overwhelming to see for yourself which myth is actually true, and which one isn’t. Whether you want to try it or simply educate yourself further, lucky you – because I am here to help you on that journey.

What is a plant-based diet?

Display of many of the foods that a plant-based diet involves.
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First of all, let’s debunk our first myth about a plant-based diet: plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean vegan. A plant-based diet can be defined as a way of eating that (mostly or entirely) consists of foods stemming from plants. You could say that the term ‘plant-based diet’ is a parent category to many patterns of eating, which all focus on lessening their intake of animal products.

Since there are many different forms, it is hard to explain every single one in detail. I decided to focus on the six main ones and give you a brief overview of those.

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: You can still include eggs (ove = eggs) and dairy products (lacto = cow’s milk), but you don’t eat any sort of animal meat.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: This diet excludes all meats and eggs, but still includes dairy products like cow’s milk and everything that can be made from it, for example, cheese.
  • Ovo-vegetarian: Ovo-vegetarians exclude meats and all dairy products, but they still include eggs.
  • Flexitarian: A flexitarian diet enjoys the benefits of plant-based foods but at the same time allows small amounts of animal products.
  • Pescatarian: A pescatarian diet excludes meat but includes fish. Every person decides on their own whether they want to include dairy and/or eggs.
  • Vegan: A vegan diet is based solely on plant foods. Those include fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, and beans. Some people on a vegan diet may also avoid animal products in everyday life, such as cosmetics, clothing, and shoes.

Tiny reminder: a plant-based diet originally has nothing to do with diet-culture.

Myths about plant-based diets

Wood blocks which spell plant based.
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There are many myths about plant-based diets and, as with most myths, some of them might have a teeny-tiny truth to them but are absolutely rubbish and can even be harmful. Here are the most popular myths and I hope we can debunk them together in the following.

  • Being plant-based is the same as being vegan. (We’ve already debunked this one.)
  • It’s hard to get enough protein in.
  • Being plant-based is expensive.
  • Plant-based food is always healthy.
  • Plant-based meals don’t satiate.
  • Once you’re plant-based, it means swearing meat off forever.
  • Being plant-based is very restricting.
  • Plant-based diets are bad for children.

“It’s hard to get enough protein in.”

First of all, many plant-based products have more protein than meat. For example, black beans, with 15g of protein per serving, have more protein than a chicken drumstick. Other nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamin B-12 can be found in plant-based sources like edamame, orange juice, spinach, or supplements.

“Being plant-based is expensive.”

It is actually possible that your diet will be cheaper than the average, omnivore diet. Unprocessed plant foods, beans, lentils, and nuts are less expensive than meats. Just a tip: stick to seasonal foods and only buy vegan cheeses, faux meats and such in small amounts. Not only will it be cheaper, but it also helps you focus on getting your nutrients in naturally, according to Dawn Jackson Blatner, nutritionist.

“Plant-based food is always healthy.”

No. Vegan is no synonym for healthy. Well, first of all, ‘healthy’ depends on the way you define it. In my opinion, healthy eating means balanced, everything in moderation, and eating whatever makes you feel good. You can still get sweets and treats that are vegan, but that doesn’t automatically make them more (or less) healthy.

“Plant-based meals don’t satiate.”

Being plant-based can feel like you’re not being satiated, since your body needs to adapt to this new way of eating. But once it has adapted, many people actually feel “less hungry on a whole-food plant-based diet”, according to the SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University. Plant proteins might keep you more full than animal protein since they have more fiber.

“Once you’re plant-based, it means swearing meat off forever.”

As mentioned in the “What is a plant-based diet?” paragraph, plant-based does not equal vegan. It is possible for you to make room for dairy and animal products. Some research even suggests that indulging in cheese or chicken here and there won’t break your diet. A flexitarian diet has similar health benefits as a vegetarian diet does.

“Being plant-based is very restricting.”

Yes, it may sound like it, but going plant-based simply means sticking to more natural plant-based foods and trying to make conscious decisions about your animal food intake. Anything that is too restrictive won’t benefit you in the long run, so if it feels too much for you, it’s okay to change it.

“Plant-based diets are bad for children.”

The thing that is most important in a diet for children is that they get enough nutrients like zinc, protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B-12. If you provide all of that in their normal diet, or give them suitable and certified supplements, a plant-based diet is not harmful.

Benefits of a plant-based diet

Many people grew up with the stereotype of only being able to grow and be strong by eating (or drinking) animal products like meat and milk. Maybe it’s due to the fact that meat was a luxury item in some regions at some time, but science has been and still is debunking this myth. There are many different benefits of a plant-based diet, and it is definitely worth (at least) knowing about them.

Physical benefits of a plant-based diet

Models of a human brain, an artery and different organs.
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There have been more and more clinical and scientific studies on the effects of a plant-based diet on different parts and mechanisms of the human body. E. Medawar et al. published a systematic review (literature review trying to collect, summarize and critically evaluate all available knowledge on a specific topic using suitable methods) on the effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain.

The most important findings were, that all plant-based dietary interventions had beneficial effects on weight, glucose, insulin, and plasma lipid levels and moreover, on inflammatory markers. Meaning that a diet cutting out animal sources completely or partially reduces inflammation in our bodies. Furthermore, the increase in our body’s glucose and insulin sensitivity proposes a diabetes-preventive potential.

Psychological benefits of a plant-based diet

Outlines of a human with the words "it's inside us all" written next to it.
Credit: Bret Kavanaugh / Unsplash

This side of benefits hasn’t been the focus of many studies yet, but research is slowly but steadily increasing. Most of the following are speculations stemming from our current knowledge of bodily functions in connection with our affectivity.

The gastrointestinal tract plays a major role in this. The hormone serotonin is produced mainly (95%) in the gastrointestinal tract. This fact indicates that our digestive system not only breaks up our food, but also takes part in our emotions. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which some define as one of our main happiness-hormones. It stabilizes our mood, helps with our sleep patterns, and affects our movement skills.

Moreover, plant-based foods are high in short-chain omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids, which can help reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression. Going plant-based is also linked to a smaller chance of suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia once you get older.

Performance benefits of a plant-based diet

A person about to lift a long barbell.
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It’s becoming more and more popular that professional athletes are going plant-based. To name a few: NFL Defensive Lineman David Carter, MLB Pitcher Patrick Neshek, basketball player Kyrie Irving and ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek. Before we get to the gist of it, I hope this crushes the myth of not getting enough nutrients or energy from being plant-based.

There have been a lot of research on this topic. In most athletes, a lower (but still obviously healthy) weight indicating a leaner body helps with enhancing athletic endurance. Although controlling the caloric intake and keeping it at the same level, adopting a plant-based diet led to a mean weight loss of 5.8 kg compared to 3.8 kg for the control group of postmenopausal women over a period of 14 weeks (Barnard et al. 2015). Yes, everyone’s metabolism is different, but several studies showed similar results, even in different populations.

Researchers in the Netherlands also found that the more people tended towards a plant-based diet, the more apparent their decrease in BMI, waist circumference, fat mass index, and body fat percentage. These stats are all linked to better athletic performance, since they allow greater endurance and indicate more lean muscle mass. This is especially of importance when considering boxers or weightlifters, since they mostly benefit from a leaner body. They can improve and increase their strength without having to go up a weight class or decrease and restrict their caloric intake. National Strength and Conditioning Association

This obviously does not mean that you have to be plant-based to lose weight, or that you even have to lose weight at all. This scientific evidence just debunks some of the myths that come with talking about a plant-based diet in sports.

Recovery benefits of a plant-based diet

A woman stretching. Stretching also helps with recovery, just like a plant-based diet
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Moreover, a plant-based diet is more conducive to recovery. Former bodybuilder Patrik Baboumian, Armenian-German, strongest man in the world, credits most of his success to his vegan lifestyle. In an interview he said, “My recovery time was so much faster so I could train more”.

Harvard Medical School provides the evidence that plants’ antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties help reduce recovery time, muscle soreness, joint pain, and help speed up healing from injuries. In addition, plant-based foods help improve blood viscosity, which enables faster oxygen distribution throughout our body. All of these factors combined can then lead to a longer career.

Barny du Plessis, Mr Universe 2014, once said, “These days I train half as much, do half as much, but get better results. Why? Only one answer, going vegan, GMO free, and organic. My body is running perfectly.”

Environmental benefits of a plant-based diet

"Earth day everyday", which is the gist of a plant-based diet.
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The production and further processing of animal products is estimated to be between 18 to 25 % in the USA, according to the EPA. If people cut out those foods, we would be able to reduce our carbon footprint over 40 % per year, which would be over one metric ton every single year.

Almost 80 % of the deforested land of the Amazon is now being used as cattle pasture. We could contribute to the restoration of native forests and natural habitats. It would enable us to keep more species alive if we would reduce the amount of land required to artificially feed animals. This land is only needed because we want to feed the animals we want to eat. Otherwise, they could provide for themselves. It would be possible to not only help the environment, but also the animals, and considering climate change and the oxygen production of trees, ourselves. Not only immediately, but also in the long run.

Cattle farming and similar also have an impact on our water resources. Fertilizers and dung sink into the earth and inevitably pollute freshwater resources.

Tiny tips to start your journey

"Start here" sprayed on a street. As easy as it is to just start here with your journey to being plant-based.
Credit: Gia Oris / Unsplash

Starting a new way of eating, or wanting to form any habit in general, can be very intimidating and sometimes, it might scare you off before you even try it. Here are a few small tips to help you facilitate your start.

  • Start small. Flipping your diet around in one day is overwhelming and lessens your chances of sticking to it. Maybe try to make a few small changes here and there and see where it takes you.
  • Swap smartly. For example, start by exchanging the ratios of veggies to meats (more veggies – less meat).
  • Find easy recipes. Some people think it’s way harder and more time to be plant-based, but there are countless quick and easy recipes for you to even help you stick to it on busy days.
  • Consistency is key. Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve “failed”. That’s a normal stage of progress. Forging a new habit is hard and it takes time. Imperfectly trying is better than never trying at all.

Why you should consider going plant-based

A plant-based diet has so many benefits, not only for yourself, but for the environment, climate, animals, and humanity. Yes, it can be intimidating and scary, but if you don’t beat yourself up and just start with an open mind, it’s not anymore.

“By eating meat, we share the responsibility of climate change, the destruction of our forests, and the poisoning of our air and water. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian will make a difference in the health of our planet.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh

Feature image credit: Fuzzy rescue / Pexels

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