Veggies for the Win
Five Reasons to Choose a Plant-Based Lifestyle
by Kiki Powers, MS, CNC
Many of us have come across the term “plant-based eating”. Perhaps the regimen was recommended to us by a medical or nutritional professional. We may have read about it in a magazine or seen a documentary on the subject. Scientists around the globe have studied this lifestyle choice, and persuasive evidence is mounting that eating a preponderance of foods from plant sources has health merits.
The concept is attributed to T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., the Jacob Gould Schurman professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University. Based on his extensive research, he has advocated a low-fat, whole food, plant-based diet since the 1980s, and his commentary appears in Forks Over Knives, an influential 2011 documentary on the subject that is still worth viewing.
Documentary Films championing plant-based diets
Websites offering tips, recipes and advice for plant-prominent menus
Cookbooks that make whole, plant-based foods shine
Americans love their cheeseburgers and french fries, and breaking a habit that we thoroughly enjoy might be challenging at first. But we need not completely ban such delights from our menu, so long as our plates are brimming with vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, beans, healthy oils, nuts and seeds most of the time. Gradually transitioning to a whole food, plant-based, low-fat diet is the winning formula for positive change and long-term compliance.
Here are five compelling reasons to make this promising dietary shift.
Cost-Effective Disease Prevention
As so many Americans struggle with chronic health issues, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, physicians are hard-pressed to find the right combination of treatments to help their patients lead healthier lives. At the same time, healthcare costs continue to skyrocket. In 2020, health spending rose to $4.1 trillion, or $12,530 per capita, according to the American Medical Association.
In a 2013 article published in The Permanente Journal, California physicians surveyed leading research and case studies and found that plant-based diets offer patients a low-risk, cost-effective intervention to regulate weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. They also asserted that such eating regimens could reduce the number of medications patients would have to take for chronic disease, and that physicians should recommend such diets to all of their patients, especially those suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or obesity.
Besides saving money on drugs and medical procedures, a plant-based menu has never been easier or more affordable. According to recent data conducted by the UK nonprofit Veganuary, plant-based meals eaten at home cost 40 percent less than meat- or fish-based meals and take one-third less time to prepare.
“The most powerful tool I discovered while in practice for both preventing and treating chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and arthritis was the implementation of a plant-based nutritional plan to a patient’s life,” says Ted Crawford, a board-certified family physician featured in two inspiring documentaries about the life-changing benefits of a plant-based diet: Eating You Alive and PlantWise.
Flavor, Freshness and Flavonoids
The latest food trend is a “burger” made entirely of plants. The race is on to see which one looks and tastes closest to a juicy, all-beef patty. Whether it’s mushrooms posing as “steak” or wheat-based seitan kneaded into “chicken”, recipes catering to carnivores have their audience. For some, these tasty alternatives may offer a path toward becoming a vegetarian or vegan.
Oven-roasted on a sheet pan, splashed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice, sprinkled with fresh herbs and spices, served with a creamy dip, slow-cooked in a crockpot, baked into a pie, frothed into a sweet smoothie or freshly pulled from the vine, consider the fact that whole, plant-based foods taste delicious on their own and deserve the spotlight.
They are good and good for us, packed with nutrition while low in fat and calories. The vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables—as varied as the rainbow—are evidence of the many healthful attributes they offer. Ditching animal fats, white flour and sugar in favor of fresh, whole plant foods found at a local farmers market ensures a rich intake of vitamins, minerals, trace elements, phytonutrients, fiber, antioxidants, flavonoids, protein, fiber and more—the building blocks of a robust, disease-fighting body.
Those that believe a plant-based diet is too limiting might be surprised to learn that there is a wealth of meat-free culinary possibilities. Garth Davis, M.D., author of Proteinaholic: How Our Obsession With Meat Is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It, notes, “Just 12 plants and five animals compose about 75 percent of the world’s food, and yet there are approximately 300,000 known edible plant species, only about 150 of which are used commonly around the world.”
There are so many plant-derived flavors and recipes yet to explore. Try a new plant-based recipe weekly. Let the kids select their favorite fruits and veggies to prepare. Enjoy reimagining old favorites like lasagna, enchiladas, chili and tacos. Simply swap out the meat in favor of beans, tofu, tempeh or faux meat products, which have become quite sophisticated in recent years.
While acute inflammation is a protective bodily response to heal infections and repair tissues, metabolic inflammation—or metaflammation—refers to chronic, systemic inflammation. According to a 2020 study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, metabolic inflammation is associated with increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and cardiovascular disease.
Numerous studies have explored the inflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects of foods. According to a 2021 article in Harvard Health Publishing, the following foods cause inflammation: refined carbohydrates like white bread; fried foods like french fries; sodas and other sugary drinks; red meat; processed meat, including hot dogs, sausage and cold cuts; and margarine, shortening and lard. Conversely, the best anti-inflammatory foods are tomatoes; olive oil; leafy, green vegetables such as spinach, kale and collards; nuts like almonds, walnuts, pistachios and pecans; and fruit such as apples, strawberries, blueberries, cherries and oranges. Omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines are also recommended for their anti-inflammatory properties.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, total greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock represents 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Cattle raised for both beef and milk are the animal species responsible for the most emissions, which include methane and represent about 65 percent of the livestock sector’s emissions. Industrially produced meat is also a leading contributor of global deforestation and habitat loss as large swaths of the Amazon and other land masses are cleared for cattle ranching and to produce animal feed.
According to a new model developed by California scientists and published in the journal PLOS Climate, a global phase-out of animal agriculture and a shift to plant-based diets over the next 15 years would have the same effect as a 68 percent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions through the end of 2100, thereby boosting humanity’s chances of avoiding the projected devastation of climate change. Such benefits would result from a decline in the methane and nitrous oxide emissions associated with industrialized meat production, coupled with a recovery of natural ecosystems as fewer forests and land masses are cleared for animal feed production.
Improved Mental and Emotional Health
Sarah Thomsen Ferreira, an integrative registered dietician and manager of clinical nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine (CCCFM), notes, “Certain foods and nutrients help your brain to make chemicals that can impact your mood, attention and focus, while other foods can zap your energy.” The CCCFM recommends a diet that combines complex carbohydrates with lean proteins and colorful produce. While lean proteins may include white-fleshed fish and white-meat poultry, healthy, plant-based, lean proteins are also found in beans, peas, lentils and tofu.
Diet can support emotional well-being and perhaps even help ward off depression and anxiety. A 2017 clinical trial explored how a plant-based diet, daily exercise and mindfulness techniques would affect 500 adult men and women diagnosed with moderate to severe depression and anxiety. After 12 weeks, participants reported improvements in depression and anxiety, according to the study abstract published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.
Eating a plant-based diet makes sense on many levels. Make the switch.
Kiki Powers is a health writer, blogger and national speaker specializing in plant-based nutrition and healthy green living. Learn more at RawKiki.com.