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5 benefits of a vegetarian diet

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Plant-based diets come with a lot of health perks. Here’s how cutting back on meat, even a few days a week, could help. 

People go vegetarian for many reasons. Some do it for religious reasons. Some don’t like the idea of eating animals. Others are worried about the environment.

Another big reason to go vegetarian? Your health. Plenty of research shows that eating more plant-based foods and less meat can help improve your health. Are you worried about your heart health or trying to lose weight? Plant-based meals can help with that and more.

But giving up meat can be a big change for some. You might have a hard time picturing your life without steak or chicken wings. Plus, how do you even cook healthy, no-meat meals?

The good news is that you don’t need to go full vegetarian. Adding more plant foods and skipping meat sometimes can still improve your health. Find out how below.

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Types of plant-based diets

A plant-based diet can vary from person to person. Some have strict rules. Others have looser ones. But you can set your own rules and follow whatever eating pattern works for you. Here are some common plant-based diets and how they work.

Vegan. This is the strictest plant-based diet. Vegans do not eat any foods that come from animals. That includes:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Honey

Some vegans stay away from other products made from animals, like leather and wool, too.

Vegetarian. This plant-based way of eating is less strict than veganism. Vegetarians do not eat any meat products. But they might eat other foods that come from animals, such as eggs and dairy. Some vegetarians may eat fish. Those people are called pescatarian.

Flexitarian. This “flexible vegetarian” diet has no set definition or strict rules. Generally, plant-based foods make up most of their meals. But they might eat eggs, dairy, fish or even meat sometimes.

You might not be ready to cut meat out of your meals completely. A flexitarian diet can help you get some of the perks of a plant-based diet. But it also lets you enjoy your favorite meats from time to time.

You can also ease your way into eating more plant-based meals. Even starting with just one or two meatless meals a week can help. And you’ll get to try out new recipes.

How plant-based diets help your health

Lots of studies show that plant foods can improve almost every part of your health. They’re full of nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that help your body work better. Plant foods include these food groups:

  • Beans
  • Fruits
  • Grains
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetables

Here are some of the top health perks of eating more plant foods.

Learn more about the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables on our Until It's Fixed podcast. Just click below to listen.

1. Better gut health

Your gut is home to trillions of tiny germs called microbes. And they can have a surprising impact on your overall health. Research has found that they can change everything from your mood to your heart health and weight.

Which microbes live in your gut depends a lot on what you eat. Research shows that plant-based diets help more “good” microbes live in your gut. According to a review in Frontiers in Nutrition, those good microbes may do many things for you, such as:1

  • Help you maintain a healthy weight
  • Improve digestion
  • Boost your immunity, which protects you from getting sick
  • Lower your cholesterol (types of fat in the blood)
  • Prevent type 2 diabetes and other long-lasting illnesses
  • Protect against bowel cancers, such as colon cancer
  • Treat and prevent gut problems, such as diarrhea

The gut microbiome is a hot topic among scientists. More research is happening all the time to explore how our gut microbes affect our overall health.

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2. Lower blood pressure

Many plant foods have an important mineral called potassium. Potassium and sodium (from salt) work together to manage your blood pressure.

Too much salt in your diet can cause high blood pressure. But getting more potassium from plant foods may help bring it back down.2

Many plant-based eating plan can help lower your blood pressure.3 That’s true even you eat some meat and dairy. In one study, plant-forward diets like the Mediterranean diet and a vegetarian diet successfully lowered people’s blood pressure.3 The Mediterranean diet includes lots of plant foods, plant-based oils, fish and very little meat.

3. Lower chance of heart disease

Plant-based diets can lower your chance of heart disease. One study looked at more than 12,000 middle-aged adults for almost 30 years. It found that people who ate the most plants were 16% less likely to get heart disease compared to those who ate the least plant foods.4

Plant-based diets are usually lower in saturated fat. This is fat that comes mostly from animal foods like meat, cheese and butter. Too much of this fat can raise your “bad” cholesterol (a type of fat that can block blood vessels). That can cause heart issues.

Eating less saturated fat is good for your heart. That’s true whether you follow a plant-based diet or not.

4. Lower risk of cancer

Besides other nutrients that are good for you, plant foods include antioxidants. These are powerful chemicals that help protect your cells from damage. In some cases, that damage can lead to cancer.5

Research shows that eating red meat and processed meats can raise your chance of getting certain cancers. Colon cancer is especially tied to meat-heavy diets.6

The opposite is true of plant-based diets. They’re linked to a lower risk of certain cancers. If you eat more plant foods and less meat, you could lower your risk of cancer.6

5. Healthy weight

A plant-based diet could help you lose weight or keep a healthy weight. One study found that people who ate plant-based meals for 12 weeks lost more weight than those who didn’t.

And they lost pounds without having to cut calories or eat less. This made it easier for people to stick to the diet.7

Plant-based diets usually have more fiber. This helps keep you feeling full. So you may find that you naturally eat less when you’re eating more plant foods. And that can lead to weight loss.8

Is there anything unhealthy about a plant-based diet?

Many people think that plant-based diets lack certain nutrients. The truth is you can get enough of almost all the nutrients you need from a plant-based meal plan. 

The more flexible your eating plan is, the easier it will be to get all the vitamins and minerals you need. But if you’re a strict vegan, you might have a harder time getting some key nutrients. Talk to your doctor if you have any worries. They can suggest supplements, if needed.

Check with your doctor before making any big changes to what you eat. You can also ask them to refer you to a dietitian. This is a nutrition expert who can help you make changes and set healthy eating goals.

Looking for a doctor who understands you? We have more than 60,000 doctors at more than 2,000 spots. Our team will help you get the care you need, when and where you need it. Find care near you.

Sources

  1. Frontiers in Nutrition. The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota. Published April 2019. Accessed February 22, 2023.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sodium, potassium and health. Reviewed August 23, 2023. Accessed March 23, 2023.
  3. Journal of Hypertension. The effect of plant-based dietary patterns on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled intervention trials. Published January 2021. Accessed February 22, 2023.
  4. Journal of the American Heart Association. Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults. Published August 2019. Accessed February 22, 2023.
  5. National Cancer Institute. Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention. Reviewed February 6, 2017. Accessed March 23, 2023.
  6. American Cancer Society. Effects of Diet and Physical Activity on Risks for Certain Cancers. Last revised June 9, 2020. Accessed March 23, 2023.
  7. Nutrition & Diabetes. The BROAD study: A randomised controlled trial using a whole food plant-based diet in the community for obesity, ischaemic heart disease or diabetes. Published March 2017. Accessed February 22, 2023.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fiber: The carb that helps you manage diabetes. Reviewed June 20, 2022. Accessed March 23, 2023.

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