Going vegan is one of the most positive changes you can make for both your health and the planet. But what are the benefits of a plant based diet filled with whole foods? Dr Leila Dehghan sets out the advantages of not just going vegan, but cutting out all heavily processed foods as well.
There has been a surge in interest in a plant-based diet and its health benefits. However, there remains confusion over what a healthy vegan diet is.
There is significant evidence to support a whole food plant based diet (WFPBD) as the optimal one for our health. Here I define a WFPBD and explore its numerous health benefits.
What is a whole food plant based diet?
A whole food plant-based diet is one devoid of any animal products, including dairy products, fish and eggs.
Omitting animal products makes it vegan, however, there are foods that may be vegan, but are not considered whole foods.
“Whole foods” are those that are natural, minimally processed and free from added sugar, salt and other artificial substances.
The key food groups of a WFPBD are whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Highly processed foods such as white flour, white rice, vegan margarines, most vegan cheeses, high-fructose corn syrup and prepackaged snacks and meals are not classed as whole foods since they have been extensively altered from their natural state.
These calorie-dense foods offer little in terms of nutrition and are generally avoided by those following a WFPBD. Minimally processed foods, however, have a place in a WFPBD.
Minimal processing methods (such as grinding, powdering, freezing, vacuum packing) aim to alter foods to increase their shelf life while preserving their nutritional quality and freshness.
Examples include tinned goods (no added sodium or sugar), frozen fruits and veg, and dried herbs and spices.
Oils are controversial among plant-based healthcare professionals.
Plant-based pioneers like Dr Campbell, Dr McDougall and Dr Esselstyn consider oils processed and do not include them in their diet recommendations.
Conversely, there are others who believe that cold-pressed olive oils are minimally processed and can be consumed in small amounts.
Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds are key food groups in a plant-based diet.
Benefits of a whole food plant based diet
Whole food plant based eating is a powerful way to reduce your risk of lifestyle diseases and promote overall wellbeing and longevity.
A plant-based diet helps maintain a healthy body weight
Maintaining a healthy weight is important for health, as being overweight or obese puts you at higher risk for many diseases and conditions.
Plant foods are nutrient-dense and lower in calories, which means you consume fewer calories for the same amount of food.
That’s because fibre in plant foods promotes satiation and helps keep you full for longer.
Studies have consistently proven that a low-fat vegan diet is associated with greater weight loss1.
Furthermore, more calories are burned in the postprandial period, as a low-fat plant-based diet increases the body’s metabolism2.
As a result, it’s easier to lose weight and maintain weight loss.
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A plant-based diet supports a good immune system
Plant foods are packed with essential micronutrients: vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants.
Phytochemicals are nutrient-like chemical compounds produced by plants that determine the colour of fruits and vegetables.
Various micronutrients work in conjunction to reduce your susceptibility to serious health issues and help you fight infections.
What’s more, the fibre in plants encourages gut microbe diversity by feeding our existing bacteria.
A healthy gut improves the absorption of the above-mentioned nutrients and supports their immune system-strengthening functions.
So, make sure you eat a variety of coloured plant foods to harness their full power.
A plant-based diet reduces inflammation
Eating whole plant foods increases our intake of antioxidants. Antioxidants play an important role in regulating inflammatory processes in the body and preventing chronic inflammation – the root cause of many health issues.
Antioxidants neutralise free radicals, which are highly unstable molecules that cause significant cell damage.
Factors contributing to the production of free radicals include smoking, excessive alcohol intake, exposure to chemicals in the environment and a diet high in processed foods.
Exercise too can increase the production of free radicals and, in extreme cases, cause DNA damage3. This is the key reason that a plant-based diet enhances athletic performance.
Interestingly, research does not support the anti-inflammatory potential of antioxidant supplements.
This can be explained by the synergistic effect of nutrients and confirms why we should aim to obtain our nutrients from foods.
Examples of antioxidants include vitamins C and E, selenium and carotenoids. You find these in abundance in berries, cherries, broccoli, peppers, kale, beans and spinach – just to name a few.
Fruits and vegetables are abundant in antioxidants and vital nutrients our bodies need to thrive.
A plant-based diet prevents and reverses diseases
There is considerable evidence showing that a whole food plant-based diet is associated with lower disease rates4, including lower risk of heart disease5, stroke6, type 2 diabetes7 and some cancers8.
This may be because substituting animal products for plant foods is effective at lowering blood pressure9, blood glucose7 and cholesterol10 – risk factors for those diseases.
A plant-based diet improves overall wellbeing
Eating nutrient-dense whole plant foods with minimal processing has a positive effect on your overall wellbeing.
Moreover, an increase in fibre and a reduction in saturated fats and animal products promotes better digestion and increases nutrient absorption.
Getting more nutrients from our foods not only improves energy levels, but also reduces fatigue and boosts general health. Additionally, plants offer vital nutrients to enhance your mood and reduce depression.
A benefit that is not often mentioned is that a plant-based diet improves blood flow11. This helps deliver more oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and organs and promotes waste product removal.
Better blood circulation reduces muscle pain and improves athletic performance. It also boosts your cell regeneration and promotes skin health.
While this article focuses on the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet on human health, it’s important to note that a plant-based diet is better for the environment and animals, which makes it a perfect diet for today’s eco-conscious humans.
Switching to a whole food plant-based diet can improve your overall feeling of wellbeing – and we would all like some of that!
Feeling inspired to adopt a plant-based diet?
Here are 31 daily tips that will show you how to go vegan the easy way.
- Kahleova H, Petersen KF, Shulman GI, et al. Effect of a low-fat vegan diet on body weight, insulin sensitivity, postprandial metabolism, and intramyocellular and hepatocellular lipids in overweight adults: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(11)
- Yokoyama Y, Nishimura K, Barnard ND, et al. Vegetarian diets and blood pressure: a meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med.
- Yokoyama Y, Levin SM, Barnard ND. Association between plant-based diets and plasma lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Rev.