February 26th, 2017

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

benefits of a plant based diet

There’s a lot of buzz lately about the benefits of eating a plant-based diet. And with good reason: There’s increasing evidence that people who eat this way live longer, healthier lives—with lower rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease—than their more carnivorous counterparts.

What exactly is a plant-based diet?
Vegetarians (who don’t eat meat) and vegans (who avoid all animal products, such as eggs and dairy) both eat versions of plant-based diets. But the good news is that you don’t need to cut out all those foods from your diet to reap many of the health benefits.

“A healthy plant-based diet aims to be nutrient dense with plant foods while minimizing processed foods and animal products,” explains Katie Abbott, MS, RDN, INHC, a Sentara registered dietitian. That means eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains and unprocessed soy—plus small amounts of nuts and seeds.

Why is it healthier to eat this way?
There are many reasons why it’s good for your heart (and the rest of you too) to eat a predominantly plant-based diet:

  • High in fiber: All plant foods are good sources of fiber, and beans are one of the most fiber-rich foods. Eating more fiber has been shown to help lower cholesterol, decrease blood pressure and make you feel fuller longer (so you eat less and decrease your risk of obesity).
  • Low in saturated fat: Saturated fat is one of the main culprits when it comes to increasing cholesterol and plaque buildup in the arteries. And since it’s only found in animal products, reducing your intake of them will automatically lower your intake of saturated fat as well.
  • Rich in antioxidant vitamins: Colorful fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of heart-protective antioxidants. Be sure to eat a rainbow of produce to maximize your intake of all these healthy vitamins.
  • Provides several essential minerals: Beans and whole grains are packed with minerals—such as potassium, iron and magnesium—that many people don’t typically eat enough of. Potassium is crucial for heart muscle function, iron feeds your red blood cells and magnesium helps regulate blood pressure.

Does plant-based always = healthy?
Just because a food is plant-based doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthy. Focus on fresh foods that are also low in fat. Limit your intake of packaged foods that may have unhealthy levels of added sodium, fat, or sugar or are so processed that some of the natural goodness (like fiber and other nutrients) has been stripped away.