For many, their experiences of consuming exclusively plant based food revolve around the popular ‘Veganuary’ challenge, which encourages participants to become vegan for the first 31 days of the year.
Of course, a plant-based diet is broadly considered to be incredibly healthy, with many people embracing the Veganuary challenge to help lose weight and fulfill their New Years’ resolutions.
At the beginning of 2020, a record breaking 500,000 people signed up to this challenge, reaffirming a growing trend that has become increasingly prevalent since 2014.
As of 2022, there’s no doubt that more people than ever are turning to veganism and creating a meat-free, plant-based diet that’s more of a long-term lifestyle choice. At the very least, they’re reducing their consumption of meat and dairy products, but what are the benefits of this and why is it becoming so popular?
Getting Started – What is a Plant Based Diet?
Let’s start with the basics; as there’s no clear or concise definition of what constitutes a plant-based diet.
This term may also be used interchangeably with a ‘whole foods plant-based diet’, which is often used more broadly to describe a lifestyle rather than a set diet or meal plan.
Because of this, a plant-based diet may not exclude meat or animal products entirely. In fact, it may simply minimize the consumption of meat while including small amounts of dairy, eggs and even seafood. Here are some of the basic and universal principles of a plant-based diet:
#1. Emphasize Whole and Minimally Processed Foods
#2. Minimizes the Consumption of Meat and Animal (or Dairy) Products
#3. Focuses Heavily on Plants (Such as Vegetables, Fruits Whole Grains, Legumes, c Seeds and Nuts
#4. Excluded Refined and Heavily Processed Foods That Include Added Sugars and Oils
#5. Prioritize Organic Produce in Many Instances and Pay Closer Attention to Food Quality
The last point isn’t necessarily a prerequisite of a plant-based diet, although the other four principles generally unite everyone who transitions to this diet and lifestyle, regardless of their underlying motivations.
Addressing the Rise of Plant-Based Foods and Veganism
As we can see, consuming a plant-based diet may be different than engaging in veganism.
However, it’s fair to surmise that all vegans will follow a plant-based diet fastidiously, eliminating all dairy produce and animal fats while relying on beans, legumes and pulses as sources of protein rather than meat.
Unsurprisingly, the increased consumption of plant-based food has coincided with a dramatic increase in veganism in the UK. This trend was observed clearly between 2014 and 2019, when the number of vegans on these shores quadrupled.
In 2014, for example, there were only 150,000 people (or 0.25%) of the population attested to having a vegan lifestyle, with this increasing by a further 126,000 and 0.46% of the population in 2016.
Fast-forward three years to 2019, however, and the number of self-identified vegans has jumped to an astonishing 600,000 in Britain. This represented another marked hike, and one that means that more than 1.16% of the population is now a vegan and consumer of a plant-based diet.
What’s more, these figures continue to rise incrementally year-on-year, as people look to realize the immense benefits of plant-based foods and embrace veganism to unlock a healthier way of life!
What Are the Benefits of Eating a Plant-Based Diet?
The rise of veganism and the consumption of plant-based foods is far from a fad too, as such practices unlock significant health benefits for participants. Here are some of the most striking to keep in mind:
#1. Reduced Bodily Inflammation
Inflammation is a common and natural bodily process, and one that’s triggered by white blood cells fighting off invaders.
The latter may be described in three different categories, namely foreign objects (such as a splinter), irritations (like seasonal allergies) or pathogens (which often take the form of bacterial or viral infections).
Inflammation is also considered to be an inevitable response to autoimmune conditions (which cause the immune system to attack healthy tissues) and chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes.
Regardless of the source of your inflammation and whether it’s short or long-term, diet and exercise can have a dramatic impact on reducing inflammation in the body.
This is largely based on research that has shown the efficacy of fruits and vegetables in reducing inflammation in the body, whereas other studies have highlighted the reverse and negative effects of processed foods and added sugars on the level of inflammation within the body.
So, consuming a diet that’s dominated by plant-based foods can lower inflammation and decrease the impact of various associated symptoms.
#2. Lower Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease
We’ve already touched on the link between Type 2 diabetes and higher bodily inflammation, and it’s widely accepted that a plant-based diet can help to reduce the risk of this common ailment.
Some 7% of the UK population now live with some form of diabetes, with the Type 2 iteration accounting for some 90% of all cases. Approximately one million people have undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes on these shores, while 40,000 children have diabetes and more than 3,000 new infants are diagnosed each year.
One of the biggest triggers for Type 2 diabetes is the regular consumption of red meat and poultry, thanks largely to the high volume of heme iron in such produce (at least according to a Singapore Chinese Health Study published in 2017).
This research recruited more than 63,000 respondents between the age of 45 and 74 across five years, before following their health progress for 11 years.
It was found that participants who consumed the highest levels of red meat and poultry showed a 23% and 15% increase in their diabetes risk respectively. Conversely, the consumption of fish and shellfish showed no identifiable association with increased risk.
What’s more, plant-based diets and the increased consumption of fruits and vegetables over time were found to help reverse Type 2 diabetes, while preventing the future onset of kidney disease and similar ailments.
Similarly, a plant-based diet typically combines almost zero dietary cholesterol and low levels of saturated fats, which is a highly potent combination from the perspective of your long-term heart health.
Minimizing the consumption of meat, cheese and eggs also compounds these effects, as they are considered to be relatively high in cholesterol and saturated fats.
Remember, plant-based and whole food diets also eliminate heavily processed foods, including white rice and white bread. These entities, which lack any kind of nutritional value and boast an inflated glycemic index, increase your odds for spiking blood-sugar levels and leading to a much larger appetite.
This can also lead to weight gain and damage your heart health over time, so a plant-based diet can help to avoid such a scenario.
#3. Improve Your Gut Health
Gut health can be impacted by a number of different factors, from stress and anxiety to underlying, chronic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
However, the single biggest factor is your diet, which has a direct impact on your gut health and how effectively you digest food over time.
There are also links here to the increased risk of heart disease caused by excess consumption of red meat. According to one study published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, the link between these two entities may stem from the gut microbiome.
Usually, the digestive tract will produce chemicals called metabolites, just as soon as it has fully digested what you’ve eaten. While some such measures may have a positive impact, others are associated with a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and red meat is thought to create a surge of these harmful metabolites in the bloodstream.
So, by eliminating red meat and similarly processed foods from your diet, you can optimize your gut health and simultaneously reduce the risk of developing heart disease in later life.
Other studies have shown that vegetarian, vegan and largely plant-based diets are balanced and promote a healthy meld of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
This, in turn, promotes a highly functional metabolism and improved immune system, while supporting healthy (and regular) bowel movements and helping you to feel fuller for longer.
The Last Word
These are just a few of the benefits of plant-based diet consumption, with others including reduced arthritis pain (which is largely caused by joint inflammation), improved cognitive function and even reducing your individual carbon footprint.
Regardless, there’s no doubt that switching to a plant-based diet and minimizing the amount of meat and dairy products that you consume can unlock numerous health benefits and enhance your physical well being considerably.
According to research led by Hana Kahleova, M.D., Ph.D., of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, just 16 weeks of maintaining a healthy vegan diet comprising vegetables and whole fruits can dramatically increase your gut and general physical health, while sustaining this over time can also reduce the risk of several chronic diseases.
In this respect, healthy, plant-based diets can help to combat many of the negative consequences of ageing, while even reducing the risk of you developing multiple cancers in the future.