Vegetarian and vegan diets have received a lot of attention in recent years, with the latest stats showing 33% of the U.S. population follow a vegetable predominant diet and 5% follow a fully vegetarian diet containing no meat at all.
For decades, animal activists have emphasized the cruelty to animals, environmentalists have warned of the impact on our ecosystem, but the most recent contenders are nutritionists and doctors emphasizing that a plant-based diet positively impacts many of our health indicators.
As this month is Veganuary – a movement challenging people to try a plant-based diet for the month of January – we wanted to dissect the science to see how a plant-based diet can improve our health.
What does a plant-rich diet provide?
- More Fiber – By swapping meat for a variety of plants as your main source of nutrient intake you naturally consume more fiber. Unlike proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, fiber is not broken down in your digestion and instead acts as roughage to aid the flow of food through the digestive system enabling better absorption of important nutrients.
- Adequate protein – A common misconception is that vegetarians don't consume enough protein in their diet. Yes, it is true that meat contains ‘complete protein’, including all 9 of the protein building blocks that we can’t produce ourselves. However, vegans are still able to consume adequate essential amino acids by simply eating a variety of plant-based foods.
- More vitamins & minerals – Eating a wide variety of plant-based foods exposes the body to more antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, C & E. Each of these have a multitude of health benefits including decreased inflammation, increased nerve function and a boosted immune system, just to name a few.
- Less Calories – a plant-based diet can help you lose weight without having to go hungry. Several randomized controlled studies found that vegetarians and vegans had healthier BMI's than omnivores. This is partly because plants are lower in calories and therefore a vegan can eat until feeling full and consume fewer calories than if they were eating meat.
- Cancer prevention – A journal from the University College London, indicates by eating at least 7 different portions of fresh fruit and vegetables per day you can decrease your risk of cancer by 15%, which is easily achievable in a healthy plant-based diet.
- Happy blood sugar levels – A systematic review suggests that plant-based eaters have lower blood sugar levels, creating 50-78% less risk of developing type 2 diabetes, due to the absence of processed meats, saturated and trans fats.
Can I get all the nutrients I need?
Regardless of diet, the average American is currently not getting the required nutrients they need. Yes, many of your health biomarkers improve on a plant-based, however, there are still key nutrients that are insufficiently consumed, especially for those on a vegan diet: Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Long-chain omega-3s, Iodine, Iron, Calcium, and Zinc. Each of these can easily be supplemented but it's important to get your blood tested before doing so. To learn more about these nutrients check out this piece from Healthline.
Where do I start?
If you think you’re up for the challenge and haven't yet watched The Game Changers documentary on Netflix then do give it a watch. It unveils how many elite athletes in our culture have achieved great feats on plant-based diets.
If you're looking for delicious recipes to avoid bland tofu, check out Jamie Oliver's vegetarian selection and The Game Changers website – I recommend the Lentil and Aubergine Moussaka with the Quinoa and Apple pie for dessert, yummm!
If you're still stuck for ideas, why not try out some of your old meat favorites with the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. Both can be found in grocery stores and will soon offer patties, mince, and sausages.