What Are the Benefits and Pitfalls of Transitioning to a Plant-Based Diet?
A plant-based diet focuses on foods sourced primarily from plants. In addition to fruits and vegetables, this also includes legumes, pulses, nuts, whole grains, seeds, and oils. It need not necessarily entail going fully vegan or vegetarian and never consuming meat or dairy again, but instead is a food pattern that centers around choosing a higher proportion of foods from plant sources.
An impressive body of evidence suggests that plant-based eating patterns such as a Mediterranean diet culminates in a lower risk of a variety of health complaints, including diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, loss of cognitive function, and various types of cancer, specifically breast, colon, and prostate cancer.
Though grounded in plant-based foods, a Mediterranean diet includes consuming poultry, fish, eggs, and cheese a few times per week, with animal protein consumed less often.
Plant-based diets date back centuries
Humans have been following plant-based diets for centuries, including vegetarian and vegan dietary styles. When following a plant-based diet, plants form the foundation of meals, with high-quality animal products and fish an option in low quantities.
People opt to follow a plant-based diet for a variety of reasons. They may seek to reduce their meat intake out of concern for animals, or to help drive down their environmental footprint. Some people make the switch as part of efforts to improve their health and fitness, while others may eschew animal products for religious or cultural reasons.
Maintaining a plant-based diet can confer multiple health benefits, chief among them, boosting the immune system. Plants contain essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that help to keep the body in balance at a cellular level, helping the immune system to function at its best. Adopting a plant-based diet can also help to reduce inflammation, with the same antioxidants and phytochemicals that boost immunity transferred around the body, neutralizing toxins from processed food, pollution, viruses, bacteria, and more.
According to a paper published by the National Library of Medicine, observational studies have generally found that vegan and vegetarian populations benefit from lower rates of overweight and obesity. Analyzing the environmental impact of various dietary patterns based on data modeling from more then 150 counties, the paper suggested that low-meat, energy-balanced dietary patterns could reduce mortality by around 19% in the case of a flexitarian diet, and 22% in the case of a vegan diet, simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions by anywhere between 54% and 87%.
Climate change is driving an ever-increasing need for humans to change their habits in order to reduce their environmental impact on the planet. Experts cite animal farming as a major contributor to global warming. As a result, governments around the world are striving to increase public awareness about the benefits of a plant-based diet not only in terms of public health, but also from an environmental perspective.
While following a plant-based diet has been shown by science to have multiple benefits, there are also some common pitfalls. Many people find following a plant-based diet more challenging than expected, particularly at the outset.
It is easy to fall into the trap of expecting all plant-based products to be healthier, which in some instances is far from the truth. Take for example soy burgers, which are often highly processed, incorporating a long list of artificial ingredients, making them no healthier than many meat-based alternatives. On top of being high in calories, they may also be lacking in the fiber, protein, and nutrients required in a balanced diet. Other nutrients that may be a lacking in plant-based foods include vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and Omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition, those following a plant-based diet may be inclined to consume too many refined carbs, such as bread and pasta, as a main ingredient, resulting in a diet lacking in fiber, which has been shown to ward off a variety of chronic conditions, helping to maintain steady blood sugar levels and stave off hunger pangs.
In order to be healthy, any type of diet must be balanced, providing the right mix of vitamins and minerals. Milk alternatives such as rice, soy and almond milk are a valuable source of calcium and vitamin D. Whole foods and beans are rich in iron and zinc, while soy products and nutritional yeast provide vitamin B12.
The key to maintaining a healthy, nutritionally balanced plant-based diet is to start slowly, swapping out one animal product with one meat-free alternative at a time. For example, you can try switching meats such as beef, pork, lamb, or chicken with beans, nuts, legumes, or vegan meat alternatives such as tofu, seitan, or tempeh.
Although there is a weight of evidence to suggest that plant-based diets are healthy overall, it is still important to cover all the major food groups, including grains, dairy, proteins, and oils, as well as fruits and vegetables. For those seeking to cut dairy from their diet, non-dairy alternatives are available. Alternatively, taking supplements may be beneficial.