5 Health Benefits of Following a More Plant-Based Diet, According to RDNs

Some pretty amazing things can start happening when you incorporate more plants into your life.

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Not so long ago, people who followed a primarily plant-based diet were considered radical hippies, going against the meat-and-potato norms of the American diet. Over the past decade, however, plant-based eating has gone mainstream as people realize not only how delicious it can be, but how reducing meat intake and following a veggie-forward dietary pattern can make them feel better and live longer, healthier lives.

There are myriad benefits of eating more plants and less meat, ranging from environmental to ethical to health-related. And when it comes to health implications of plant-based nutrition, we’re talking about some major advantages, including increased longevity, better gut health (which affects so many areas of overall health), decreased risk for heart disease, and more.

Related: What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Eating Meat? We Asked an RD

What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

A plant-based diet refers to a way of eating where the majority of foods consumed are, you guessed it, plants. It means prioritizing real, whole, minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses/legumes, and whole grains. While some plant-based eaters choose to remove animal products completely, many others choose to go “vegan-ish” or follow a flexitarian diet and lifestyle. Although a plant-based diet can sound restrictive, it’s actually quite the opposite.

"Eating this way encourages increasing your intake of plant foods, but still allows for the moderate consumption of animal products, if you choose—your favorite ice cream isn’t completely off-limits," says Kara Kash, RD, LDN, head dietitian for the meal-delivery service Factor.

""Eating this way encourages increasing your intake of plant foods, but still allows for the moderate consumption of animal products, if you choose.""

Kara Kash, RD, LDN

Plant-Based vs. Vegetarian vs. Vegan

If you’re wondering if being plant-based is different from being vegetarian or vegan, the answer is a bit nuanced. A vegetarian diet refers to one in which all meat products are removed, while vegan diets go one step further to exclude all animal products and byproducts, including dairy and eggs. (Both vegan and vegetarian diets are examples of plant-based diets.)

Is It Healthier to Be Fully Plant-Based?

"Though it’s generally not recommended to convert to a wholly plant-based dietary pattern, there are many well-studied and established health benefits of going plant-based,” says Lena Bakovic, MS, RDN, CNSC, registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching. For example, she explains that “the Mediterranean-style diet, which is mostly plant based, has been thoroughly studied for its numerous health benefits in the prevention of chronic disease, treatment of inflammation, and even extension of lifespan. This specific dietary pattern does still incorporate fish, poultry, and small amounts of cheese, making it not entirely plant based."

Another thing to note, as with any eating pattern or lifestyle, while you can make extremely healthy choices as a vegetarian or vegan, the truth is that simply eliminating animal products from your diet doesn’t automatically make your food choices or eating habits healthy. Think about the vegan friend who subsists mostly off of french fries and Oreos (delicious, but not nutritionally ideal to eat every day or at every meal!).

Related: 7 Mistakes to Avoid to Make Plant-Based Eating Feel Effortless

Top Health Benefits of Plant-Based Eating

Following a more plant-based diet can help reduce systemic inflammation and risk of chronic health conditions.

Plants, and plant-based foods, are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that are unique to plants, all of which contribute to reduced inflammation in the body and overall good health. Phytochemicals are considered immunomodulators that reduce inflammation and target free radicals.

“Research suggests that following a plant-based diet may reduce the risk of developing certain chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes,” Kash says. Lowering chronic inflammation by bumping up your plant intake can positively impact so many important elements of your health, including helping to mitigate chronic pain, boost immunity, improve digestion, lower stress, and aid in better sleep.

According to Kelly Frestone and Gene Stone, authors of 72 REASONS TO BE VEGAN: Why Plant-Based. Why Now, compared to animal-based foods, “unprocessed, plant-based foods tend to be cholesterol-free, lower in saturated fat, and higher in fiber, complex carbohydrates, and other essential nutrients.” As a result, plant-based eaters tend to have lower incidences of many diseases and conditions, including several types of cancer

Related: Eat These 8 Types of Vegetables to Lower Inflammation, According to Dietitians

Plant-based eating prioritizes low-saturated-fat foods for better heart and metabolic health.

“Protein-containing foods sourced from plants, specifically, contain little to no saturated fats, which are known dietary risk factors for chronic diseases, and when consumed in excess can lead to excessive plaque buildup within artery walls—otherwise known as progressive atherosclerosis,” Bakovic explains. “Excessive saturated fat intake may also contribute to insulin resistance and generalized inflammation within the body, both circumstances being conducive for the further progression of metabolic syndrome and chronic disease.”

A plant-friendly diet can help improve your cholesterol levels.

Another heart-healthy advantage? Those who switch over to consuming more plant foods may “more than likely, see an improvement in their LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels when measured in the blood, which is the type of cholesterol that deposits plaque on artery walls,” Bakovic says. This is due to the high fiber content in plant foods—both soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber, in particular, binds to dietary cholesterol in the small intestine, allowing it to pass through your system instead of leaving it behind to get absorbed (another risk factor for atherosclerosis).

Plant-based eating provides huge perks for gut health and digestion, including plenty of fiber.

The fiber, plant compounds, and micronutrients found uniquely in plant-based foods are an absolute boon to the health of your gut microbiome. “The gut microbiome is teeming with billions of bacteria that are essential for everyday function, from proper digestion to hormone and mood regulation,” Kash says.

Fiber is naturally sourced from foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes,” Bakovic says. “A diet higher in plant vs. animal sources will likely contain higher amounts of fiber from both soluble and insoluble sources: fiber that functions as a prebiotic (a key nutrient for healthy gut microbes) and creates conducive conditions for optimization of gut health [and] motility."

""Though it’s generally not recommended to convert to a wholly plant-based dietary pattern, there are many well-studied and established health benefits of going plant-based.""

Lena Bakovic, MS, RDN, CNSC

Related: 16 Best Fruits and Vegetables For Gut Health, According to RDs

Eating more plants fortifies your immune system.

Higher consumption of plant foods is associated with improved immunity in several ways. According to 2022 research in Open Life Sciences, “[d]ue to their high nutritional and functional composition, plant-based foods are beneficial in acute and chronic diseases.” As previously mentioned, the phytonutrients found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes help prevent and lower your chances for developing chronic health conditions down the line—and they’re also integral for fortifying your immune system to fight immediate (or acute) infection and sickness, including “pneumonia, common cold and flu, asthma, and bacterial diseases, such as bronchitis,” the paper notes.

Some of the top naturally plant-derived micronutrients and compounds that boost immunity include powerful plant pigments (e.g. flavonoids, beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, catechins), polyphenols, certain minerals (e.g. zinc, copper, iron, and selenium), and certain vitamins (A, C, D, E, B6, B9, B12).

What’s more, your immunity is closely linked to your gut health. The good gut bacteria in your system plays a role in regulating several immune cells within the body. Since plant-based eating emphasizes foods and drinks that support a thriving, balanced biome, this in turn supports and strengthens your immune system to fight intruders and fend off infections.

Related: The 9 Best Fruits and Vegetables for a Healthy Immune System, According to RDNs

Tips for Easier Plant-Based Eating

Think small and realistic.

Start small by making realistic tweaks that make sense for your lifestyle and preferences—and go from there. “See where you can sneak more plant-based foods into your day,” Kash says. Try incorporating some fruit or some vegetables at every meal or snack.

Keep an abundance mindset—focus on adding not subtracting.

In the same vein, focus on adding instead of restricting, replacing, or eliminating. Instead of thinking, ugh, I am not allowed to eat a cheeseburger, reframe to consider what you can have: Make a slightly smaller patty, but add sauteed mushrooms, smashed avocado, or caramelized onion jam for texture and flavor. Experiment with flavorful, plant-based burger recipes.

Or can you simply add some chickpeas to your rice bowl, or black beans to your burritos? By the time you’ve loaded up your plate with colorful fruits, veggies, beans, and whole grains, you might find you don’t need as large a piece of chicken or as many meatballs as you’re used to having.

Related: Black Bean-Oat Burger

Try dishes from a cuisine that’s plant-based by nature.

“A lot of folks make the mistake of trying to make their favorite animal-based dishes into plant-based [ones that] usually don't end up tasting the same. One of my favorite tips is to tell people to explore a cuisine that’s plant-based to begin with," says Megan Hilbert, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian specializing in gut health nutrition at Top Nutrition Coaching. “There are so many cuisines and dishes from around the world that are incredibly flavorful [and also plant-friendly], like Indian cuisine, Ethiopian cuisine, traditional Mediterranean cuisine, West African, and more. These cuisines often rely heavily on pulses, legumes, whole grains, rice, etc., that when combined can provide complete protein and lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.”

Related: 6 Terrific Sources of Plant Protein for an Added Boost of Fuel

Don’t be shy with spices, seasonings, and cooking methods.

Another common complaint for people trying to eat plant-based is that it’s bland or uninteresting. Hilbert’s solution to that hurdle: Use lots of spices and herbs! Treat your plant foods, from beans to spaghetti squash, like you would any other food—season them well and prepare them thoughtfully. “Treating plant foods like you would meat—season heavily, roast, sear, cook to bring out the flavor—can go a long way in making plant foods taste incredible.”

Find easy recipes you love to make and eat.

Here are some favorites for any day of the week:

How to Get Important Animal-Derived Nutrients

Hilbert notes that there are several nutrients found more abundantly or conveniently in things like meat, dairy, and eggs; but this doesn’t mean you can’t get them elsewhere. With some basic knowledge and “proper planning, it should not be an issue,” she says.

  • Calcium: Dairy foods have long been a primary source of this nutrient, Hilber says you can also find calcium in “tofu, leafy greens, and calcium-fortified plant milks.”

  • Iodine: “Naturally, this can be found in seafood, but plant-based foods like seaweed are also a great source,” she suggests. (Iodine is also added to some salts, although many more people are reaching for sea salt these days.)

  • Iron: Eggs and meats are top sources for heme iron, which is more bioavailable (gets absorbed into the body more easily). But non-heme iron can be found in lots of plants, including legumes, leafy greens, dried fruit, and seeds. “Eating these with vitamin C–rich foods (bell peppers, strawberries, citrus) can help non-heme iron be absorbed,” Hilbert recommends.

  • Zinc: Nuts and seeds are excellent plant sources of zinc. “Phytates found in plant foods like whole grains and legumes can reduce zinc absorption, but fermented and sprouted foods can help reduce the amount of phytates, so including these foods can help,” explains Hilbert.

  • Vitamin B12: There are no plants that contain this vital nutrient naturally; however, Hilbert says some foods are fortified with B12, including non-dairy milks and nutritional yeast. She adds that those on a fully plant-based eating plan may need to rely on a B12 supplement to get their daily needs (talk to your doctor or a nutritionist if this sounds like you!).

Related: 9 Plant-Based Foods You Should Be Eating More Of

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