It’s easy to write plant-based diets off as another fad, and that’s because they’re rapidly becoming one. The word “plant-based” is getting slapped on marketing all over the place, a buzzword in its own right, and that makes me nervous rather than giddy. I’m all about plant-based nutrition, so what’s the problem? The issue is that the true spirit of this movement is getting lost: plant-based nutrition should be centered on whole plant foods, because whole, minimally processed plants are where the medicinal, life-changing, healing value is. A whole-food plant-based diet consists primarily of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. It is not necessarily vegan, and vice versa. Contrary to common belief, it should be incredibly affordable. And for most people, it is nothing short of life-changing. So why should you switch right this second?
1. heart disease is the leading killer
A whole-food plant-based diet is the only diet that has been shown to prevent, arrest, and reverse heart disease. This is a huge deal. In the United States, heart disease is the number one cause of death for men and women. And it doesn’t just suddenly manifest at middle age! Atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in arteries) begins in adolescence and progresses in young adulthood, so by the time a heart attack happens, it has been decades in the making. You likely have the beginnings of heart disease; I’m sure I do too, as I grew up eating an unhealthy diet and had high cholesterol throughout my teenage years. Fortunately, your body is enormously self-healing when allowed and given the tools to do so. Whole-food plant-based nutrition is such a strategy: in a Cleveland Clinic under Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, compliant patients that had undergone incredibly invasive cardiac procedures and were told they only had one year to live remained alive after switching to a plant-based diet, became asymptomatic (no more chest pain), and experienced disease reversal. It’s like magic, and every single one of us has a wand.
2. weight loss and maintenance
Calorie density is a measure of the calorie content of a food relative to its volume. If we fill ourselves up on whole foods of low calorie density, we can lose weight, get lean, and most importantly, become our healthiest. Lo and behold, based on the below graph, the foods with the lowest calorie density by far are plant-based, and even more importantly (not pictured) the most nutrient dense! Crucial to note is that we’re talking whole plant foods here, not processed foods. It’s a winning combination: you load up on tons of nutrients and don’t overshoot on calories (without counting!) based on this concept. So if you want to eat as much as you want, not worry about counting anything (macros, calories, you name it), and enjoy a rich array of foods, a whole-food plant-based diet is definitely for you.
“Researchers were able to cut people’s caloric intake nearly in half, from 3000 calories a day down to 1570 without cutting portions, just by substituting less calorie dense foods, which means lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, compared to a high energy density meal with lots of meat and sugar.” - Eating More to Weigh Less, by Dr. Greger, MD
3. the environment
We know that 2017 was the third warmest year on record, and that we can shrink our carbon footprint significantly by eating a plant-based diet. We also know that water is a finite resource, and that the world’s freshwater resources are used mainly for agriculture. Our food choices are inextricably linked with the availability of water. Says Sandra Postel, the director of the Global Water Policy Project and water expert on the National Geographic Society’s Freshwater Initiative, “On average, a vegan, a person who eats no meat or dairy, indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet.”
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on climate change, saying the world is completely off track to keep the rise of global temperatures under 1.5 degrees C. While there must be a necessary shift in global systems in order to prevent catastrophe, the report emphasizes that changes need to happen on the individual level for this goal to be feasible.
It’s almost winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and along with it comes bouts of the flu and cold. Maybe getting sick is something you’ve come to expect every year, but it doesn’t have to be! Consumption of more fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of getting an upper respiratory tract infection, and when it comes to the flu, low consumption increases hospitalization rates by 8%, more than obesity and low physical activity do. In another study, a randomized controlled trial was performed on 83 healthy elderly individuals; some were assigned to continue their normal routine, while others were told to consume five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day for 16 weeks. The latter group demonstrated an 80% improved response to their pneumonia vaccination. There’s definitely something to be said for crowding out unhealthy foods with powerful, immune-boosting, plant-based foods - try it for yourself and see!
Even if you’re skeptical, there are undoubtedly benefits to switching to a more whole plant-rich diet. Convinced, but confused on where to start? Check out my post How to Start Eating a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet, where I give you some helpful tips on ways to get your feet wet, or dive right in. Unsure? Then head over to my Resources page to learn more. I can’t overstate how powerfully life-saving a plant-based diet is. I witness it regularly myself, as a medical scribe in a lifestyle medicine practice called Ethos Health. We don’t have to be sick, overweight, or miserable. We can live fulfilling lives, thrive, and nudge the planet towards a more sustainable future by pulling strings on our personal habits. What’s more powerful than that?