5 Remarkable Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Aside from being so much better for the planet, a plant-based diet may be best for human health as well.

©. Magnanatka

The importance of eating less meat and dairy from an environmental perspective has been big news for a while – but what's in it for us? I mean, aside from having enough food to feed the masses and avoiding apocalyptic climate change and stuff. As it turns out, research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that go a long way in improving and maintaining health.

In a report published in The Permanente Journal, a publication of the Permanente Medical Group, a group of doctors laid out the research in order to present physicians an update on plant-based diets. Their advice was unequivocal:

"Many physicians are not stressing the importance of plant-based diets as a first-line treatment for chronic illnesses."

They add that a plant-based diet can, "reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates," adding that:

"Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients."

Permanente is the largest medical group in the United States – it includes 9,000 physicians and 35,000 nurses – so suffice to say that this recommendation is pretty sweeping. The authors reviewed existing studies that included vegan (defined as "total vegetarian"), vegetarian (diets excluding meat, poultry, and seafood), and Mediterranean diets – here are the findings they highlight.

1. Lower Rates of Obesity

From the studies reviewed, the authors point out these conclusions:

  • A vegan or vegetarian diet is highly effective for weight loss.
  • Weight loss in vegetarians is not dependent on exercise and occurs at a rate of approximately 1 pound per week.
  • A vegan diet caused more calories to be burned after meals, in contrast to nonvegan diets which may cause fewer calories to be burned because food is being stored as fat.
  • Vegetarian diets may be better for weight management and may be more nutritious than diets that include meat.
  • Vegetarian diets are nutrient-dense and can be recommended for weight management without compromising diet quality.
  • Epidemiologic studies indicate that vegetarian diets are associated with a lower BMI and a lower prevalence of obesity in adults and children.

2. Prevention and Management of Diabetes

Here are the takeaways on a plant-based diet and diabetes:

  • Vegetarians have approximately half the risk of developing diabetes as non-vegetarians.
  • Nonvegetarians were 74 percent more likely to develop diabetes over a 17-year period than vegetarians.
  • A low-fat, plant-based diet with no or little meat may help prevent and treat diabetes, possibly by improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing insulin resistance.

3. Lower Risk of Heart Disease

These are some of the things they found when reviewing heart disease research:

  • In one study, 82 percent of patients with heart disease who followed a plant-based diet had some level of regression of atherosclerosis. Comprehensive lifestyle changes appear to be the catalyst that brought about this regression of even severe coronary atherosclerosis after only one year.
  • Low-density lipoprotein decrease 40 percent at one year and was maintained at 20 percent less than baseline after five years. These reductions are similar to results achieved with lipid-lowering medications.
  • In one prospective, randomized, secondary prevention trial, the intervention group (at 27 months) experienced a 73 percent decrease in coronary events and a 70 percent decrease in all-cause mortality.
  • A collaborative analysis using original data from five prospective studies compared ischemic heart disease-specific death rate ratios of vegetarians and nonvegetarians. The vegetarians had a 24 percent reduction in ischemic heart disease death rates compared with nonvegetarians.

4. Lower Blood Pressure

  • The authors explain that in 2010, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee performed a literature review to identify articles examining the effect of dietary patterns on blood pressure in adults, concluding: "Vegetarian diets were associated with lower systolic blood pressure and lower diastolic blood pressure."

5. Increased Longevity

  • The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee also performed a review to determine the effect of plant-based diets on stroke, cardiovascular disease, and total mortality in adults. They found that plant-based diets were associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality compared with non-plant-based diets.
  • Excessive consumption of red meat is associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality and an increased risk of cardiovascular mortality. Low meat intake has been associated with longevity.
  • One meta-analysis to investigate cardiovascular disease mortality among vegetarians and nonvegetarians looked at seven studies with a combined total of 124,706 participants. Vegetarians had 29 percent lower ischemic heart disease mortality than nonvegetarians.

As the authors explain, the purpose of their report was to help physicians understand the potential benefits of a plant-based diet, with the goal of creating a societal shift toward plant-based nutrition. They write that "these data suggest that plant-based diets may be a practical solution to prevent and treat chronic diseases."

Along with the importance of reducing our eco-impact by eating less meat and dairy, this can only be a win-win. Add in the fact that we could stop subjecting animals to our diabolical factory-farm system and the benefits are even more remarkable.

You can see the whole report here: Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets.