The general definition of a “plant-based diet” means eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and avoiding animal products like dairy, eggs, meat, and seafood. Some might define it as having minimal animal products, but it really depends on where you are in your health journey and what you’d like to work towards.
The Adventist Health Study
The benefits of a plant-based diet are based on the Adventist Health Study, which included over 96,000 Seventh-day Adventists, ages 30 to 112, from all fifty states and from Canada. About 8% were vegan, 20% were lacto-ovo vegetarian, which means they don’t eat meat but do eat dairy and eggs. 10% were pesco-vegetarian, a diet which includes fish but excludes meat and poultry, and 48% were non-vegetarian, which basically means they ate meat.
The study’s findings:
- A vegetarian diet is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.
- There’s a connection between a high consumption of cooked green vegetables, dried fruits, legumes and brown rice to a lower risk of colon polyps, which is a precursor to colon cancer.
- There is a link between the plant-based diet and an overall higher quality of life.
The EPIC Study
Another well-known study is the EPIC study, or the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition at the University of Oxford. About 65,000 participants from the UK were enrolled in the study in 1993 and it continues on even today.
The study’s findings:
- Those who consumed a vegan diet ate the most fiber, the least saturated fat, and the least overall fat.
- Compared to omnivores, who include meat in their diet, vegans had the healthiest body weights and cholesterol levels.
- Even compared to other vegetarians, who tend to include dairy and eggs in their diet, vegans had the lowest systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels, as well as the lowest rate of hypertension of all diet groups in the study.
Are there benefits beyond health?
Beyond all of these health benefits, is there also a relationship between the dietary pattern we choose and food sustainability? Well, studies showed that higher consumption of animal-based foods was connected with a higher environmental impact, while high consumption of plant-based foods was connected with a lower environmental impact.
Here’s an example to illustrate. Compared to producing 1 kilogram of protein from beef, producing just 1 kilogram of protein from kidney beans requires:
- 18 times less land,
- 10 times less water,
- 9 times less fuel,
- 12 times less fertilizer,
- and 10 times fewer pesticides.
Studies showed that those who followed the healthy eating patterns in the Dietary Guidelines were more environmentally sustainable than diets typically consumed by the larger population. Evidence continues to support the benefits of increasing plant-based foods and decreasing animal-based foods. There’s agreement across all of the studies that evaluated the environmental footprints of different dietary patterns.
Despite the methods of assessing environmental impact, overall, a plant-based diet is incredibly helpful – it’s better for your body and better for the planet.
Excerpted from Life & Health’s upcoming online course, Healthy Eating on a Budget, hosted by Sherene Chou, RD. Subscribe to our newsletter for updates on when the course will be released.