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A Plant-Based Diet: Is It Really Better For you?

The plant-based diet has become very popular over the last few years, but is it really better for you? This article looks at the health benefits of being vegan.

Is a Plant-Based Diet Really Better for You?

Recently, vegan and plant-based diets have experienced an increase in popularity. Why? Because they are associated with many health benefits, thanks to their high levels of fibre, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, various phytochemicals and fat content that is mostly unsaturated. According to scientific bodies such as The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there is no nutritional need for humans to eat animal products. They claim all our dietary needs, even as infants, can be sufficiently met with a meatless diet. Well-planned plant-based diets follow healthy eating guidelines and contain all the nutrients that our bodies need. They are suitable for every stage of life. In fact, getting your nutrients from plant foods allows more room in your diet for health-promoting whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables, which are packed full of much-needed fibre, minerals and vitamins. In addition, going vegan is an excellent opportunity to learn more about nutrition and cooking, and improve your overall lifestyle for increased longevity. Vegans are shown to exercise moderation in all aspects of their life: diet, exercise and recreation (alcohol, smoking, etc.). All the available research indicates that a whole-food plant-based diet (WFPB) is better for you; but if you’re still not convinced, let’s take a closer look at three key areas.

The Big Four

1] Cancer One of the primary recommendations of the American Cancer Society (ACS) is to eat a diet “with an emphasis on plant food”. Why? Because researchers have found that vegetarians are up to 50 per cent less likely to suffer from some cancers. Vegans consume considerably more legumes, fruits, vegetables, garlic, soy, fibre, vitamin C, lycopene, antioxidants and phytochemicals than omnivores. All those foods and nutrients are protective against cancer, especially lung, mouth, oesophagus, colorectal, prostate and stomach cancers. The sources of protein avoided by vegans can have detrimental health consequences. Red meat and processed meat, in particular, are associated with an increased risk (20-60%) of esophageal, liver, colorectal and lung cancers. In addition, the intake of eggs was recently shown to be associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. 2] Obesity Obesity is one of the most urgent health crises in the world today. It is the leading cause of preventable death. Despite the growing number of “diets” available, people keep getting bigger. Weight loss studies have found that two-thirds of dieters gain all the weight back within a year, and a whopping 97 per cent gain it all back within five years! Put simply, animal products contain more fat than plant-based foods. As such, it is no great surprise that studies show that meat-eaters have three times the obesity rate of vegetarians and nine times that of vegans. Of course, it’s possible to be an overweight vegan or a slim omnivore, but adult vegans are, on average, 15 kilograms lighter than their meat-eating counterparts. 3] Diabetes Even if you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, a healthy vegan diet is safe. In fact, if you have diabetes, a plant-based diet may help you manage your blood sugar better. Whilst a PBWF diet won’t cure your diabetes, it may help you keep your blood sugar more stable. And if you lose weight, it can lower your glucose levels and alter how much insulin you need to take. For people with type 2 diabetes, the news is even better. Recent studies have shown that a vegan diet may help control glucose levels, manage the condition and avoid complications more effectively than any other diet plan. And lastly, of the approximately 22 percent of people diagnosed with prediabetes, research shows that they can stop it from progressing to type 2 diabetes, and bring blood sugars back into a healthier range, by simply embracing a plant-based diet. 4] Cardiovascular Disease Cardiovascular disease is the number one health problem in the world. High levels of cholesterol are linked to a greater risk of having a heart attack. Sadly, thanks to the dedicated and long-term efforts of the meat, dairy and egg lobbies, many people still believe that animal products are necessary for good health. One of the most extensive studies on lifestyle and health found that the chances of dying from cardiovascular disease were significantly less for vegans than non-vegans, especially men. Why? Because plant foods contain no cholesterol, whereas meat, eggs, and dairy products contain large amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat. Also, the high fibre content of a vegan diet helps “wash away” excess cholesterol in the digestive tract. What’s more, a vegan diet can even reverse the damage already done. When patients with coronary artery disease were put on a low-fat vegan diet combined with moderate exercise and relaxation techniques, they reversed the build-up of plaque in their arteries.

Nutritional Support

We would be remiss if we didn't point out that eliminating all animal products from the diet increases the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. While many people claim that a whole-food plant-based diet easily meets all the daily nutrient requirements of practitioners, others dispute this and claim it is deficient in some vital areas. The only way to know for sure is to get tested. In the meantime, vegans should focus on eating a diet rich in fortified foods — nutritional yeast, hemp milk, beet juice, coconut milk, marmite, etc. — and consider taking seven main nutritional supplements:

  • Vitamin B12

  • Iodine

  • Vitamin D

  • Iron

  • Calcium

  • Zinc

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Life Expectancy

Some scientific reviews suggest that plant-based and vegan diets may help people live longer, but these findings aren’t universal. As such, more comprehensive studies are necessary to make a concrete conclusion. One extensive review of vegans and vegetarians in the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and Japan suggested that they have a 9-12% lower risk of death from all causes, compared with omnivores. And when separated from the rest, vegans had a 15% lower risk of dying prematurely from all causes. However, other studies into the vegan and vegetarian lifestyle in Australia and the UK reveal no evidence that they live longer than meat-eaters. Thus, at present, there is no definitive link between veganism and lifespan. Besides diet, one reason that vegans are perceived as living longer is that they generally pursue a more health-conscious lifestyle compared with others. For example, vegans may be less likely to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. They also appear more likely to maintain a normal body mass index (BMI), exercise regularly and avoid excess consumption of processed (junk) food. Experts believe that this increased health consciousness may help explain why some vegans live longer than non-vegans. Either way, there is abundant evidence that living a vegan lifestyle can make you happier and healthier.

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