July 8, 2024
July 8, 2024

How Does a Plant-Based Diet Improve Health and Happiness?

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How Does a Plant-Based Diet Improve Health and Happiness?

A plant-based diet, as the name suggests, is a diet which consists of predominantly plant-based foods. This includes fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds,whole grains and legumes. Animal-based products such as meat, fish and dairy are discouraged or eaten in moderation. 

Types of plant-based diets include vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian and flexitarian. The Mediterranean diet is also considered predominantly plant based and has been studied over time and proven to have many health benefits. 

A plant-based diet is not a new concept and has been mentioned during the period of Ancient Greece when Pythagoras described the slaughter of animals as immoral. A vegetarian diet is also a tradition which features in religions suchas Buddhism. 

In America, rates of obesity-driven diseases such as type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease and hypertension are at a high. The American diet consists of processed foods high in sugar and fat and according to the National Center of Health statistics between 2018-2020, 41.9% of adults in the US were obese

Plant-based diets have been shown to help with weight loss, lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of and control of type 2 diabetes as well as cardiovascular disease and depression.

As well as this, according to the National Cancer Institute, up to 50% of cancers are attributed to modifiable risk factors of which includes a poor diet. There has been promising evidence that plant-based diets, particularly the mediterranean diet, contributes to a reduced cancer incidence. 

As a result, more people are opting to adopt a plant-based diet whether that be for health, environmental or animal welfare reasons. 

Read on to learn about the benefits of a plant-based diet and how it is linked to improved health and happiness. 

What are the Benefits of a Plant Based Diet?

Plant-based diets contain many valuable nutrients and health promoting compounds. These include fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and carotenoids. There are many ways in which these nutrients have been shown to improve human health. 

Read on to find out ways in which plant-based foods can boost health and happiness. 

Boosts the Immune System

The immune system is a complex interaction of cells and proteins which protects our bodies against infection. Certain nutrients in fruit and vegetables such as vitamins E and C have been shown to enhance immune function. Additionally, the immune system is vulnerable to oxidative stress, fruit and vegetative rich in antioxidants can help protect the immune system from free radical damage.

Encouraging a healthy gut microbiome is also vital in maintaining a healthy immune system as many of the body’s immune cells are in the lining of the gut. The relationship between the gut microbiome and the immune system is complex and research is ongoing.

Western-style diets have been found to affect the configuration of the gut microbiome and negatively impact host immunity .One way in which a plant-based diet can help is due to the high fiber content. When gut bacteria breaks down fiber they create short-chain fatty acids which have been shown to enhance immunity against pathogens

Reduces Inflammation

There have been multiple studies demonstrating the link between a healthy diet and systemic inflammation. Chronic inflammation plays a role in many disease processes including cancer.

A systematic review and meta-analysis has demonstrated that vegetarian and vegan diets are linked to a lower level of c-reactive protein, an inflammatory  biomarker. A further cross-sectional study has shown that a healthy eating index and diet higher in plant-based foods reduces inflammation. It must be noted that randomized controlled trials which are the gold standard in determining a causal relationship, were not included in the review, so further research is required. 

Additionally, the mediterranean diet has a low dietary inflammatory index. It includes a high ratio of monounsaturated fat to saturated fats as well as an abundance of fruit, vegetables, legumes and grains and has shown to have anti-inflammatory effects when compared to typical North American and Northern European dietary patterns in most observational and interventional studies. 

Evidence of Cancer Prevention

It has been proposed that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of a diet high in fruit, vegetables and olive oil are able to prevent and counteract DNA damage and negative cell proliferation thereby slowing down the development of certain forms of cancer. A review on the Mediterranean diet has revealed that it is a protective factor against cancer onset when it is part of a regular lifestyle. 

On another note, we know that diets higher in processed meats and red meat are linked to an increased risk of cancer. A comprehensive meta-analysis and systematic review showed that high red meat intake was associated with an increased risk of many types of cancer including breast, colorectal, endometrial, lung and liver cancer.

High processed meat intake was associated with an increased risk of colorectal, breast and lung cancers. The World Health Organization (WHO) has listed processed meat as a group 1 carcinogen and red meat as a group 2 carcinogen. Experts concluded that each daily 50g portion of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. 

Diets high in ultra-processed food result in harmful bacteria in the gut and influence the gut microbiome. This harmful bacteria can cause chronic inflammation and DNA damage causing mutations and tumors to grow.

There is a rising incidence of cancer in the young (<50 years) in early onset colorectal cancer and it is thought that harmful gut bacteria caused by ultra-processed foods plays a role. Research is ongoing to determine this causation and establish preventative strategies for which there is a pressing need.  

Improves Health

Through a variety of mechanisms, consuming a diet high in plant-based foods and low in processed foods has been shown to improve health. This helps maintain healthy levels of blood lipids, cholesterol and glucose as well as a healthy weight.

Reducing obesity is important in reducing the risk of obesity-related diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Also, obesity is attributed to 4-8% of all cancers. Those with obesity also have an increased risk of dying from cancer and this influences treatment choices. Read more about how diet can promote health and longevity. 

Increases Happiness

Along with physical health benefits, a high quality diet (i.e. one low in ultra-processed, refined and sugary foods and high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes) has been linked to a lower incidence of reported depressive symptoms.

The most compelling evidence in regard to depression is with the Mediterranean diet.  A systematic review and meta-analysis looking at healthy diet indices and the risk of depression, found that adhering to a healthy diet, in particular a traditional Mediterranean diet - or avoiding a pro-inflammatory diet, appears to offer some protection against depression in observational studies.

However, there is a further need for more prospective studies and high-powered clinical trials to determine the role of dietary patterns in depression. 

Getting Started With a Plant-Based Diet

It is important to note that adopting a plant-based diet does not mean you are not allowed to consume meat, fish or dairy, but means that you are proportionately choosing more foods from plant sources.

A plant-based diet provides you with all necessary fats, carbohydrates,proteins, vitamins, and minerals for optimal health; however, those following a vegan diet may need to include a supplement of vitamin B12. If you are considering switching your diet, make sure you consult your healthcare professional or a nutritionist for advice.

The best way to benefit from a predominantly plant-based diet is to consume a wide variety of plant-based foods. 

Here are some tips for a plant-based diet:

  • During mealtimes ensure at leasthalf your plate is filled with vegetables which are a variety of colors.
  • Enjoy vegetables as a snack with hummus, salsa or guacamole.
  • Choose fruit for dessert.
  • Incorporate whole grains into yourbreakfast e.g. oatmeal, buckwheat, quinoa or barley and enjoy with fruits, nuts or seeds.
  • Cook a vegetarian meal at least oncea week, make beans, vegetables or whole grains the star of the show.
  • Change the way you think about meat,reduce the portion size, consider it a garnish.
  • Be aware of and choose good fats, these include olive oil, nuts and nut butters.

 Learn more about foods which are beneficial for you and your cancer risk. 

Health, Happiness and a Plant-Based Diet: Summary

There are many health conditions and adverse outcomes which can be mitigated by a healthy, plant-based diet.

Not only can it help patients with chronic health conditions, but there is promising evidence that it can reduce the risk of cancer, particularly those which are linked to a diet high in red and processed meat. There are also many easy ways to incorporate a variety of vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes into your diet. Care should be taken to ensure adequate consumption of vitamin B12, calcium and protein. 

It is important to make empowered and positive choices regarding your lifestyle in order to promote health and wellbeing.

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