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How a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet can Promote Health and Prevent Disease

August 17, 2015 by Ginger Hultin MS RDN

Ever wonder what you can do to help reduce your risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, and even some types of cancer?  It’s actually really simple and I’m never quite sure why we’re not talking about this more – why it’s not prescribed by doctors every single day and why it’s not a ‘prescription’ we get more than any medication. That’s right – your diet can change the risk of ALL these things. And the diet that has the power here? Vegetarian and vegan patterns. Yup. I’m chatting all about how a vegetarian or vegan diet can promote health and prevent disease here today with you. 

Whatever diet you follow, it is important to consider the amount of plant-based foods you are eating and the positive outcomes that come from adopting some vegetarian/vegan practices, even if you don’t classify yourself as such. There are a plethora of benefits associated with eating a diet that is rich in plant foods, we will dive right in to reveal these benefits and what you can do to improve your health. There’s a reason that these diets are trending so strongly right now and you’re seeing vegetarian and vegan restaurants and menu items popping up everywhere. People are starting to catch on that this is a healthy and delicious way to eat. Bonus? There are proven environmental benefits of eating less meat as well. Huge win! 

How a vegetarian or vegan diet can help to promote health and prevent chronic disease

The Health of Vegetarians and Vegans Revealed

The popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets are surging in the United States and around the world. The vegetarian diet ranked top 10 for best diets in this year’s U.S.News consumer report and the plant-based, Mediterranean diet ranked #1, closely followed by the flexitarian diet. The popularity of plant-based diets are on the rise because there are so many health benefits from eating plant foods.

You’ve likely heard that vegans and vegetarians tend to be healthier than their meat-eating counterparts. In fact, many people are attracted to plant-based diets for their wonderful health benefits including lower cholesterol and blood pressure. While this doesn’t mean that vegans and vegetarians are automatically immune from chronic diseases, on the whole, plant-eaters tend to be at a lower risk for a host of health ailments.

There is vast research on vegetarian diets and its impact on human health, including a large population study of Seventh Day Adventists. This population is largely herbivorous in accordance with their religious beliefs. In fact, one of the “Blue Zones” of the world, an area where people live much longer than others, is Loma Linda, California, home to thousands of Seventh Day Adventists.

Adventist Cohort Study Results:

  • Vegans and vegetarians have much lower disease risk than the general population.
  • As the consumption of animal products decreased (i.e. from lacto-ovo vegetarian to vegan), so did disease risk. 
  • The more plant-centered the diet, the lower the disease risk. 
  • Risk for obesity, hypertension, diabetes and metabolic syndrome are all significantly lower for vegans and vegetarians. 
  • Decreased risk for cancer, heart disease mortality and all-cause mortality. Here is everything you need to know about how diet affects cancer.
  • Vegetarians tend to have longer life expectancy than non-vegetarians.

In “Blue Zones” people live for longer than anywhere on the planet, with the lowest prevalence of chronic diseases. The one unifying feature of these geographically diverse regions is that they all consume primarily plant-based diets. The “Blue Zones” are a testament to the health promoting aspects of plant-centered diets on longevity and quality of life.

How a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet can Promote Health and Prevent Disease

So what are the elements of a vegan diet that promote disease prevention? While we can’t point to a specific cause and effect yet, we do know some things. Research shows that vegetarians consume more vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and soy products than non-vegetarians. We also know that these foods are health protective due to their abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytosterols, antioxidants and other phytochemicals.

Vegetarians consume no meat and they also commonly consume less added fat, sweets, snack foods and sugar-sweetened beverages than non-vegetarians. Many of these foods contain fats and sugars known to be linked to disease. In short, vegetarians tend to eat more of the health-promoting foods and less of the foods that contribute to health issues. Life expectancy studies show that along with a vegetarian diet, lower body weight, no smoking and regular physical activity are important factors for longevity.

Myths about Vegan and Vegetarian Nutrition

There are many myths surrounding vegan and vegetarian diets, most of which are just that, myths. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports vegetarian and vegan diets and reminds consumers that well planned plant-based diets provide adequate protein and vitamins for adults and kids of all ages. Although often touted for being extreme and hard to follow, a vegetarian diet does not need to be restrictive, rather it can be liberating and it does not need to be perfect. 

If you need support following a plant-based diet, I highly recommend working with an RD. Contact me here to make an appointment!

How a vegetarian or vegan diet can help to promote health and prevent chronic disease

The Secret: Plant-Based Nutrition

While there is no single perfect diet, vegans can be unhealthy and meat-eaters can be healthy, eating a plant-based diet is one way to boost your intake of disease-protective nutrients. The following tips can help you eat the optimal plant-based diet:  

  • Eat a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits with each meal
  • Choose hearty whole grains over refined 
  • Add protein-packed legumes and soyfoods to your meals
  • Make water your main beverage of choice 
  • Choose calcium-rich foods from the following plant foods: dark leafy greens, tofu, and soymilk
  • Enjoy alcohol in moderation
  • Stay active doing any movement you love

At the core of human health are plants, an abundance of plant foods! Whether that means you eat an exclusively vegan or an omnivorous diet, if you eat your plants your health will thank you. It is not essential to be vegan or vegetarian to prevent chronic disease but instead to eat a high quality diet that incorporates plant-based foods, joyful movement, and a lifestyle that brings you happiness. 

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Ginger Hultin,MS, RD, CSO

Integrative nutrition specialist helping clients navigate complex health conditions to reduce inflammation and feel better.

Thanks for visiting! If you're struggling with a cancer diagnosis, autoimmune condition, gut health problems, or even a medical mystery, nutrition can make a HUGE difference in your day-to-day life. I run a virtual, concierge private practice where I partner with my clients over time to help them improve their health through nutrition. Be sure to visit the blog for easy, plant-based, anti-inflammatory recipes and our "Resources" page for a variety of self-paced programs, books, e-books, and nutrition podcast episodes.

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