In case you missed it, January is also known as Veganuary! For those who choose to participate, this looks like eating only plant-based foods for the month, in an attempt to advocate for animals, reduce your environmental footprint, and/or improve your own general health. It’s a great way to dip your toe into the world of plant-based eating, and determine if it’s something you want to (and can feasibly) continue into the future. So to give you a little extra motivation, we’re sharing 5 reasons to eat more plant-based meals.
Whether you choose to eat more plant-based because you’re an animal lover, environmental activist, or simply want to live a healthier lifestyle, the rise of plant-based dietary patterns continues to skyrocket – for good reason! A key thing to note is that plant-based diets are more of a lifestyle than a diet. It’s an approach to eating without requiring any calorie or macro counting, instead simply focusing on eating more plant-based foods, and fewer animal products. There are a few different interpretations of plant-based diets, including:
- Vegetarians: Vegetarians don’t eat animal meat such as chicken, pork or beef, however they can consume bi-products such as cheese, eggs and milk, as long as no animals were harmed in the production of these foods.
- Vegans: People who follow a vegan diet don’t consume any animal meats or animal products whatsoever, and eat only plant-based foods.
- Flexitarians: Flexitarians are slightly more flexible, as the name implies, in their dietary choices. They focus on reducing their meat intake and mostly consuming plant-based foods, but include some animal products from time to time.
The fact is, there are many benefits to including more plant-based foods and meals into your diet. Aside from the obvious things, like reducing your environmental impact and protecting the animals you’d otherwise be consuming (or the use of animals for their bi-products), there are various health factors to consider if you’re contemplating eating a plant-based diet. Here are a few key reasons to shift towards this style of eating.
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1. It’s excellent for gut health.
A plant-based diet is generally rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes and other fibre-rich foods, making it incredibly beneficial for your gut health. Fibre plays a key role in keeping your gut healthy, acting as food for the beneficial bacteria living in your gut microbiome. This means, when you consume enough fibre, you’re actively nourishing the good bacteria.
However, most people eating a western diet high in red meats and saturated animal fats aren’t eating enough fibre each day. The Australian guidelines recommend adults eat at least 25-30 g of fibre per day, yet research shows that most people aren’t meeting the minimum intake. Eating more plant-based foods, such as beans, vegetables, fruits, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, allows you to more easily meet your fibre targets each day. All these foods are rich sources of fibre, amongst many other beneficial nutrients, and support gut health and general wellbeing. We know gut health is linked to positive mental and physical health outcomes, including improved immune function and digestion, reduced bloating and discomfort, and improved bowel regularity and motion, so increasing your fibre intake has beneficial effects to each of these processes and functions too. Keep in mind, if you’ve been consuming a diet low in fibre, try to slowly increase the amount you’re eating – otherwise you may experience some serious gassiness and bloating as your gut adjusts!
By including more plant-based foods in your diet, you’re replacing foods which are often high in saturated and trans fats, such as red meat, with foods high in fibre, B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin C, and other incredibly healthy nutrients, you’re essentially swapping out the nasties for a bunch of body-loving nutrients, giving yourself the best chance of being healthy and happy! It’s a win-win for plant-based foods.
2. Protects against various health conditions and diseases.
Eating a plant-based diet is incredibly protective for your body, reducing your risk of several serious health conditions, illnesses and diseases and supporting immune system function.
Firstly, plant-based diets can help reduce high blood pressure, which in turn reduces your risk of developing health complications such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that people following a vegetarian diet have lower blood pressure, on average, than those following diets including animal meats, as well as a 34% lower risk of developing hypertension (consistently high blood pressure) than meat-eaters.
Secondly, eating more plant-based foods can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by a huge 34%. Plants contain much less saturated fats compared to animal foods, so when you’re eating predominantly plant-based you’re also improving your cholesterol levels and reducing your diabetes risk. In fact, a recent study found 7.6% of meat eaters suffer with type 2 diabetes, compared to only 2.9% of vegans.
And thirdly, plant-based diets may prevent various forms of cancer. Plant foods are some of the richest sources of anti-cancer nutrients, including fibre, vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals, all of which protect against cancer and disease. Phytochemicals in particular help protect against cellular damage, and have anti-inflammatory effects on the body, meaning they’re incredibly beneficial in reducing your risk of disease. Eating a diet rich in these nutrients, including plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and occasionally animal foods if you choose, can reduce your risk of cancers, including breast, colorectal, gastrointestinal and prostate, by up to 10%.
3. It’s beneficial for heart health.
In addition to reducing your risk of the above health conditions, a plant-based diet can do wonders for your heart and cardiovascular health.
Animal meats and some animal products contain large amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol, which can contribute to heart problems when eaten excessively. However, when you swap some of these out for plant-based foods, you’re reducing your risk of developing cardiovascular disease by up to 16%, and lowering your mortality risk from heart complications by around 31% – huge! High cholesterol levels can lead to fatty deposits building up in your blood and blocking your arteries, potentially restricting your blood flow and causing heart attack, stroke or heart disease. However, following a healthy diet rich in plant foods can reduce your LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels by 10-15%, particularly since whole plant-based foods are rich in fibre, and contain no dietary cholesterol and minimal saturated fats – a huge bonus for heart health.
A plant-based style of eating has benefits to your heart on two levels. Firsty, by swapping foods high in fats and cholesterol out for plant-based whole foods, which contain no cholesterol and minimal saturated fats, you’re lowering your “bad” cholesterol levels and protecting your heart, as we discussed. But equally, plant-based foods have anti-inflammatory and protective effects for your body and heart, so you’re not just reducing the “bad” stuff, you’re also introducing more of the “good” foods and nutrients which actively protect your heart and general health. Some of the most heart-protective, anti-inflammatory foods include leafy greens, whole grains, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and yellow veggies – all of which happen to be plant-based! So by including more plant-based foods in your diet, you’re showing your heart all the love!
4. Protects brain health.
Plant-based diets have been shown to have mental health benefits, as well as physical health ones. Research shows plant-based eating can slow age-related cognitive decline, as well as diseases like Alzheimers and dementia. In fact, a study found that eating just 100 g extra of fruit and veg daily (roughly half a cup) saw a 13% decrease in the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.
This is largely owing to the fact that fruits and veggies are rich sources of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant which protects the body against oxidative stress and cell damage, and has strong cognitive benefits.
5. Supports weight management.
Including more plant-based foods in your diet is amazing for weight balance and management too. Since these foods are high in fibre and beneficial nutrients, they’re super satiating, meaning you feel fuller for longer after you consume them, and you’re less likely to overeat at each meal (and afterwards!). Similarly, plant wholefoods have a stabilising impact on blood sugar levels, preventing sharp spikes and crashes in blood glucose so you have a regular supply of energy throughout the day, and don’t suffer from extreme sugar cravings!
All of these factors combined mean a plant-based dietary pattern helps you feel full and satisfied after your meals, you’re less likely to overeat, and you experience fewer blood glucose fluctuations and sugar cravings, all helping you to achieve a healthy, balanced weight you can maintain in the long-term.
Even better? These health benefits can all be achieved without the need to cut out any of your favourite foods or treats, so you never have to feel deprived or restricted. Plus, eating plant-based doesn’t mean you need to eliminate all animal foods, as we mentioned, it simply means prioritising health-promoting plant-based foods the majority of the time. The benefits of including more plant-based foods and meals in your life are undeniable, so this Veganuary consider making some food swaps, introducing Meatless Mondays, or trying some new plant foods which may just become staples in your diet!