Could a Plant-Based Diet be the Key for Better Health?
In recent years, eating healthier has become hugely popular. In the midst of nutritionally complete meal replacement shakes, salads being launched in fast food joints and a whole host of daily multi-vitamins now available, people are becoming more and more aware of their health and are keen to upgrade their diet.
And one of the biggest shifts in eating healthier has turned to plant-based.
Veganism has taken off in a big way worldwide, with people swapping chicken breasts and steaks for plant-based alternatives like tofu.
But is it all a fad? Do we assume it’s better for us, just because we’re cutting out animal products? Or is it, in fact, truly the healthier alternative?
In this article we discover the benefits behind eating plant-based and whether it is the key to better health.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is fairly self-explanatory. It means you eat foods that come from plants alone – and not animals.
Foods like vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits are all plant-based and can make up nutritionally complete meals to keep you satisfied, energized and healthy.
The only issue you could have is that vitamin B12 cannot be found in plants, so you would have to either supplement or choose fortified foods like breakfast cereals, yeast extracts or plant-based dairy alternatives to keep your body’s blood and nerve cells healthy and DNA production ticking away.
One of the other issues you may have is figuring out how to hit all your macros – without losing out.
If you’re in the process of losing weight, protein is key to burning fat, boosting recovery and reducing appetite for better calorie control. So, you may worry that switching to a plant-based diet could reduce your protein intake and jeopardize your fat loss progress.
Whilst animal products like eggs, chicken breast, seafood and steak all contain high protein content, you can also find protein-packed substitutes in nature, too.
- Nut butters
Seitan, for example, does have that ‘meaty’ look and texture when cooked and contains around 25 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces, making it a great meat alternative. Lentils are also high in protein, as well as dietary fiber which can help cut out hunger .
So, if you are concerned about losing out on protein by switching to a plant-based diet, don’t be. There are many substitutes that are rich in protein – alongside other nutritional benefits – to keep you progressing in your weight loss journey.
As we mentioned earlier, dietary fiber is a key part to your weight loss – and your health. Unlike protein or carbohydrates, dietary fiber isn’t ingested. Instead, it moves through your body and out the other side completely intact. This is why it is great at keeping you fuller for longer.
It is also beneficial to your health as it can control blood sugar levels to reduce the risk of diabetes, can lower cholesterol levels for a healthier heart and keeps bowel movements regular to avoid bloating or constipation.
The beauty of a plant-based diet is that you can find fiber-fueled foods anywhere:
- Green beans
These are just a few – but there are countless options to choose from, meaning the plant-based diet could make it easier to lose weight quicker and be overall healthier.
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
We’re always told to avoid fat if you want to lose weight. However, some fats are essential to your health. Polyunsaturated fat is key to staying healthy. It can help lower your cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease, alongside supporting brain function and cell growth too.
The problem is, our body does not produce these fatty acids so we need to get them from foods. Most notably, these fatty acids like Omega-3 and Omega-6 are found in animal products like oily fish including salmon, mackerel and sardines. So, what does that mean if you’re on a plant-based diet?
Thankfully, these fatty acids are also prominent in:
- Peanut butter
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Brussel sprouts
Whilst being packed with vitamins, sprouts are also rich in omega-3, with 135mg in half a cup serving. Walnuts also contain omega-3, with one ounce giving you anywhere between 159-231% of your daily recommended intake. Omega-6 is rich in tofu and peanut butter too.
Although it will take a little extra effort, you can still fuel your body with these essential fatty acids the plant-based way, without losing out on all the benefits.
Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
So, we’ve seen that choosing a plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean you are missing out on those key nutrients you’d find in animal products. In fact, going plant-based could even boost your health and immunity.
Let’s unpack the key benefits you could enjoy if you switched to a plant-based diet.
- Could help with weight management
Because a plant-based diet is packed with dietary fiber from vegetables, nuts and fruits, you’ll have much more control of your appetite.
As we mentioned before, fiber has the ability to keep you feeling fuller for longer as it passes through your system without being ingested. This, alone, could have a big impact on your weight management as you’ll be less likely to snack and be able to stick to your calorie targets on a day-to-day basis.
The other way cutting out animal products could help you lose weight is that many plant-based foods are extremely healthy and don’t contain as much saturated fat as some meats like beef, lamb or pork and dairy products. Instead, you’ll be eating whole, clean foods packed with healthy vitamins and minerals – without the added fat.
- May boost your immune system
Whilst animal products do contain many key nutrients that could benefit your immune system, the sheer amount of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals found in vegetables and fruits alone will help keep your cells healthy and your body functioning at its optimum.
Antioxidants work to fight against harmful free radicals. Free radicals are compounds in your body which could potentially cause multiple illnesses if levels get too high, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Whilst our bodies have their own antioxidant army to keep free radical levels low, it also helps to top up with antioxidant-packed foods too. The benefit of a plant-based diet is that the sources with the most antioxidants are all plant-based so it’s easier to stay healthy.
Spinach, for example, contains two types of antioxidants that’s been evidenced to decrease the risk of cancer and lower blood pressure too. Broccoli is also known for its immunity-boosting powers, with one study showing a significant reduction in oxidants in the subjects, thus reducing heart disease from oxidative stress. Green tea is also packed with antioxidants, as well as having appetite-suppressing abilities and can raise your metabolism to burn more fat.
Take a look yourself and make plant-based recipes packed with antioxidants for a better immune system.
- Could support better mental health
Feeling good is not always easy. Challenges in life, day-to-day can take their toll and everyone can feel low as a result. The best way to deal with this is by ensuring your serotonin levels are always high.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter which contributes towards you feeling happy. To trigger serotonin, the brain needs the amino acid tryptophan which can often be found in plant-based foods such as broccoli, peas, leafy greens and pumpkin seeds.
Studies have shown that animal-based diets can have a negative impact on mental health compared to plant-based diets. Diets higher in protein trigger more amino acids which can override tryptophan and minimize the amount that reaches the brain – meaning less serotonin triggered. As a result, you could feel down and be more prone to depression or anxiety.
Aim to top up on those tryptophan-fueled foods to keep your mood and wellbeing in check. Check out our brain-boosting foods here for some inspiration!
- May benefit the environment
We all have an impact on the environment – whether that be driving to work every day or binge-watching a new series on Netflix. But as climate change becomes more prominent, eating meat has also been put under the spotlight as to how its production is impacting the environment too.
One study estimated that the US food production system uses 50% of US land area, 80% fresh water and 17% of fossil energy to meet the demand. The fossil energy usage makes production unsustainable. Also, farming animals could cause climate change through destroying forests for industrial meat and can endanger wildlife from growing animal food packed with toxic pesticides.
The impact of plant-based production needs less land area and fossil energy to sustain it, so could undo some of the effect meat production has had on the environment if taken up by the population.
The bottom line
It’s clear to see why so many people have said goodbye to an animal-based diet. The health benefits of a plant-based diet alone could help you feel better in yourself, stay fit and keep your weight under control.
Whilst the benefits are great, many people do tend to struggle without animal products – especially for the first few weeks. But as vegan products have become the norm in many food stores across the world, you can pick up tasty alternatives to help you assimilate the plant-based way into your lifestyle.
Plus, it’s a chance to get really creative in the kitchen!
There are other options too, if you feel like you’re not quite ready to take the plant-based plunge and go ‘cold-turkey’ on animal products. Maybe start with cutting out red meat? Then move onto swapping chicken for tofu.