Why is a whole food plant-based diet is an optimal diet for health and longevity?
Most of today’s common chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity as well as certain types of cancers are caused by our lifestyle. It’s estimated that up to 80% of all premature deaths from those diseases could be prevented, partly by simple diet changes (20,22),. Although poor diet is not the only contributor to those diseases, it is a dominating contributor, along with a sedentary lifestyle, overweight, smoking and drinking. A high intake of sodium, meat, saturated fat, processed foods and sugary beverages are strongly linked to poor health and disease. Contrary to this, a whole food plant-based diet, which is filled with fiber, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, good sources of protein and plenty of phytochemicals and antioxidants (more than in any other diet!), are scientifically proven to be in favor of disease prevention and longevity. Here follows some more details and facts which will help you understand why this way of eating is an optimal way for health and longevity.
The Key to Healthy Weight
Basing your diet on plants means you will eat a voluminous diet, a very nutritionally dense diet, but not a very calorie dense diet.
This is the key too keep a healthy weight. On a whole food plant-based diet you can eat a lot, feel full and satisfied; yet feel light and energised at the same time. All the fiber from the plants will prevent your blood sugar from going on a roller coaster, which means you will feel more stable throughout the day and at less risk for craving sugary snacks. Stable blood sugar levels help with weight management. There are many fad diets out there that may help with weight loss short term, but none of them are as powerful, sustainable and as health promoting in the long term, as a plant-based diet. The diet that can BOTH help maintain a normal body weight, AND is full of protective and vital nutrients, that is the ultimate diet! Although a plant-based diet is very beneficial for people with weight problems, a plant-based diet should not be seen as a quick fix for weight loss. A plant-based diet is the optimal diet for health and longevity and should be seen as a long term lifestyle choice.
Protection Against Diabetes.
People who eat a completely plant-based diet have shown to have around 62% less risk of developing diabetes type 2, and lacto-ovo vegetarians a 38% less risk, compared to non-vegetarians, after adjusting for BMI and other confounding factors (1).
Eating meat at least once a week, in comparison to never eating meat, has been associated with an 74% increase in the odds of developing diabetes type 2 (25) and even just substituting 5% of total energy intake from vegetable protein for animal protein, has been associated with an 23% reduced risk of diabetes type 2 (26). For people who are already diagnosed with pre-diabetes, or diabetes type 2, a whole food plant-based diet can be an efficient tool in the treatment of insulin resistance, which is the underlying problem of diabetes type 2. After just a few weeks, or even days, of eating a whole food plant-based diet the blood sugar will start stabilize and the insulin sensitivity will increase. The diet change may help mange the disease so well that medications may not be needed, or may even be taken off if currently used. The American Diabetes Association recommends a plant-based diet as a healthful eating pattern (2), and there is mounting evidence that supports the use of a plant-based diet as a tool for type 2 diabetes prevention and management (28).
To Protect Against Cancer.
World Cancer Research Fund and The American Institute for Cancer Research states in their recommendations for cancer prevention that people should eat mostly food of plant origin.
We should eat much more fruit, vegetables, whole grains and beans, and at the same time we should decrease our intake of red meat and avoid all processed meats, as well as limit our intake of sugary drinks, energy dense foods, salt and alcohol (7, 27). The World Health Organization has even classified red meat and processed meats as carcinogens, and the cancer risk increases with the amount of meat consumed (8). Many of our most common cancers today, such as colorectal, prostate, breast, stomach, pancreatic and kidney cancer, have all been connected to meat and animal products. There are many hypotheses to why that is, and the most convincing ones are that meat contains animal protein, saturated fat and carcinogenic compounds such as heme iron (naturally found in meat) or compounds formed during the process or cooking of meat e.g. heterocyclic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) (9). Meat also lacks protective compounds such as fiber and antioxidants. Therefore, to minimize our risks of cancer we should instead focus on eating health-promoting foods; i.e. plenty of plants! The more fiber people eat, the less cancer they tend to have. People who eat plant-based diets are around 40% less likely to develop cancer than meat eaters (10,11).
Longetivity & Healthy Aging
People who live on plant-based diets have been shown to live longer compared to the general population.
7-day Adventists men and women in California, who live plant-based, have around 10 and 6 years longer life expectancy, respectively (16). People in the worlds five so-called “Blue Zones” tend to live longer and be healthier even in older ages (7-day Adventists is one of those groups). Although these people have grown up in different parts of the world, are surrounded by completely different environments and have different genes, they have a few key health factors in common. They all prioritize close family relations, they move naturally, they have tools for stress management, and they eat predominately locally grown plants. They eat on average 95% plant-based and 50-80% carbohydrates. The carbs are complex carbs such as vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes (not sugar and refined or processed foods). Beans, lentils and soy are cornerstones in their diets, and they eat meat on average only 5 times per month (17).
Protection Against Heart Disease.
Studies have shown that plant-eaters have around 32% reduced risk of developing and dying from ischemic heart disease, such as heart attacks and strokes, than omnivores (5,6, 19).
Nearly 50% of all death from cardiovascular diseases could be prevented by better food choices, such as increased intake of nuts and seeds, fruit and vegetables and decreased intake of sodium, processed meat and sugary drinks (18). A whole food plant-based diet is filled with nutrients that have proven to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic inflammation and high blood glucose levels; all these factors are contributing to the risk of developing atherosclerosis and heart disease. A whole-food plant based diet is also minimal in saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein, which are all associated with increased risk of heart disease (12). Furthermore, a low fat whole food plant-based diet is the only diet that has been proven to reverse heart disease (3, 23). And among people who already have severe cardiac events, a low fat whole food plant-based diet, has shown to be protective against further cardiac events (4, 24).
For a Healthy Gut Flora.
Most of our immune system is found in our colon and is built up by a complex microbiota profile.
A diet rich in fiber (fiber is only found in plant foods!) leads to a more diverse and richer microbiota, as fiber is simply food for the gut and colon bacteria (14). When we eat a lot of fiber we feed the bacteria, and in turn when the bacteria metabolize the fiber, it releases lots of healthy compounds, which ultimately leads to a stronger immune system. A healthy micro flora is associated with less overall inflammation, less risk of heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes and different digestive diseases, and of course common problems such as constipation. People who eat mainly plant-based have a reduced abundance of pathobiots, and a greater abundance of protective species in their micro flora (13). On the contrary, a diet rich in animal protein such as red meat, leads to an increased production of disease promoting compounds in the colon, which in turn increases the risk of e.g. atherosclerosis and colon cancer (7, 15).