Vegetarians come in all colors, shapes, sizes and approaches—some don’t even identify themselves using the word “vegetarian” at all. Vegans are a category of vegetarians who do not eat any animal products at all (not even eggs or dairy products), and a new trend among some in this group is to call their way of eating a “plant-based diet.” There is no strict definition of this term, however, and so it follows that anyone who eats some form of vegetarian diet might consider “plant-based eating” an apt description of their food intake patterns. Regardless of why someone chooses to shun animal products in favor of a plant-based diet, there do seem to be some significant benefits from this way of eating.
Do plants equal better health?
Vegetarianism is associated with several health advantages, including a lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. This part isn’t really news—there is years of research and a plethora of studies that indicate the presence of these benefits, and perhaps even more. What there isn’t much of is data that compares the types of vegetarianism as they relate to particular health benefits. After all, there are lots of types of vegetarians; Eastern Illinois University has put together a great resource for considering how plant-based eaters are grouped.
Which plant-based diet is the “best”?
That depends on what you mean by “best.” There is a general lack of comparative data on the health benefits of various types of vegetarian eating patterns. One recently published study, however, is about as close as we currently have to pinning specific health benefits to specific types of plant-based diets. A large study called the Adventist Health Study has tracked the health of members of the Seventh-Day Adventist religion since the 1950s. Why this group? The group tends to lack confounding behavioral factors that typically skew the results of large, population-based health studies, such as cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption. This makes other factors easier for researchers to observe. The majority of Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians of some type (though not all), which makes this an ideal population for studying the health impacts of plant-based eating. In this recent study, called the Adventist Health Study-2, 96,000 U.S. and Canadian participants provided information about their diets and health status every two years from 2001- 2007.
What did the researchers find out? The big take-away trend was that the more plant-based the diets were, the better the overall health of the participants. In other words, the more “strict” vegetarians had better health outcomes than those who followed a “looser” plant-based diet. This held true for various health outcomes and risk factors including diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body mass index (BMI), the presence of metabolic syndrome, and even longevity.
Another recent study from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London corroborates the finding that the higher our intakes of fruits and vegetables, the better our protection from certain health risks. It further found that vegetables seem to be more beneficial than fruit, and that frozen and canned fruit might actually increase our risk factors, raising questions about the issue of added sugars in such products as well as the dietary recommendations that include fruit juice as a serving of fruit.
What exactly is it that makes plant-based eating more healthful?
Good question. Unfortunately nobody really has nailed that down yet. Experts have posited a number of reasons that a plant-based diet might beat a meat-based diet in terms of health-promoting benefits, including:
- includes more produce—and it’s more fruits and veggies overall that is helpful
- may be higher in fiber
- is lower in saturated fat
- can often be lower in calories and therefore promotes weight loss
- may include more beneficial phytochemicals from a wider variety of produce
Most likely, like most things in the nutrition world, it’s a combination of things that help make vegetarianism healthful. If you’re inclined to start eating a plant-based diet, don’t approach it haphazardly. Like any diet, a little planning and a focus on nutrient density is the way to go. For more info on planning a healthy vegetarian diet, check out the links here.