Five Surprising Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet - Kaldzar
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Five Surprising Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Fruit and Veggie-Based Bowl. Image by Brooke Lark, cropped.

Five Surprising Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Many of the important benefits of a plant-based diet – particularly for climate health and animals – are well known. [1] Yet despite the science being very clear, there remains confusion about the impact on human health.

We have long known for example, that a diet centered around whole plant-foods – fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, beans, nuts and seeds – significantly reduces the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. [2,3,4,5] In fact, a low-fat, plant-based diet is the only diet shown to actually reverse established coronary artery disease. [6] It has also been seen to reverse type2 diabetes [7], and enable effective and sustained weight loss [8] without portion control or exercise. It has even been shown to arrest the progression of early stage prostate cancer. [9]

Here are five additional benefits of a plant-based diet that may surprise you.

1. Improves mental health and wellbeing

Diet choices can significantly impact mood and mental health, and there is a very good reason for this. Diet affects the health of our gut bacteria, which produce many of the hormones active in the brain. Gut bacteria thrive on fiber, which is only found in whole plant foods. So it is no surprise to find that a plant-based diet can benefit mental health.

In one US study conducted at a large insurance company, participants who were overweight or had a history of type 2 diabetes were either prescribed a low-fat vegan diet or asked to continue their usual diet for 18 weeks. The results showed a significant improvement in mental health, wellbeing and work productivity in those on the vegan diet. This groups also benefitted from lower levels of depression and anxiety.

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2. Reduces arthritic pain

Osteoarthritis, the painful breakdown of cartilage in the joints, appears to be an inevitable consequence of ageing. It is not reversible but it is manageable, usually with pain medication and sometimes surgery.

So what role could a plant-based diet play here? One small study looking at the diet’s impact showed a significant improvement in self-reported pain and functioning in people with osteoarthritis. [10] One reason for this could be the anti-inflammatory properties of the micro-nutrients present in plant foods, as inflammation is the main cause of pain in arthritis. [11] Meat-based diets have the opposite effect and, in general, increase the level of inflammation in the body.

3. Improves period pain in women

So if a plant-based diet can improve arthritis pain, could it also perhaps improve other types of pain? Some research suggests it could help with period pain in women. [12]

For this study, women swapped to a low-fat vegan diet for two menstrual cycles. Then they went back to their usual omnivorous diet for their next two. Pain duration and intensity and premenstrual symptoms were recorded and levels of a hormone affecting estrogen levels were measured.

On the low-fat vegan diet, women reported less pain duration and intensity, shorter duration of premenstrual symptoms and tests showed a lower level of estrogen. People are often surprised to hear that diet can impact hormone levels in the body. This study shows exactly that, and how lower estrogen levels can benefit women’s health in a number of ways.

4. Reduces the risk of urinary tract infections

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are one of the most common causes of infection in the general population. Not too surprisingly, the common bacteria Escherichia coli (E coli) is often the culprit. Infection can occur because E coli from the intestine finds its way into the urinary tract. But UTIs can also be caused by E coli strains commonly found in farm animals such as chickens and pigs. Therefore, eating contaminated sources of meat can lead to infection, too.

Given the link between E coli and UTIs, it might seem obvious that those on a plant-based diet who avoid meat might have a lower risk of infection. But whether this was the case was not known for sure until recent research came out.

The analysis of several studies shows that vegetarians have a 16% lower risk of UTIs compared to non-vegetarians. [13] This confirms previous data suggesting that meat-bourne bacteria are a major contributor to the risk of UTIs. Increasingly these food borne bacteria are displaying antibiotic resistance.

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5. Saves on hospital costs

So if those following a health plant-based diet have a lower risk of ill health then surely this will save on health costs.

Vegetables Galore. Image by Luisa Brimble.

A large Taiwanese study found that vegetarians have a lower rate of outpatient visits. In fact, this translated into a 13% lower outpatient expenditure and a 15% lower total medical expenditure. Therefore, it is interesting to hypothesize the health economic impact of a plant-based diet on the UK’s cash-strapped National Health Service. In 2017, spending on healthcare in the UK totalled £197 billion – approximately £2,989 per person. If everyone in the country shifted to a vegetarian diet, this could potentially reduce healthcare expenditure by £30 billion.

Plant-based diets then, not only have the potential to dramatically improve human and planetary health. Additionally, they could have significant benefits for the health of the economy too.

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Shireen Kassam

Visiting Professor, Health and Wellbeing Research Group, University of Winchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. Five ways the meat on your plate is killing the planet.
  2. Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults.
  3. Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies
  4. Changes in intake of plant-based diets and weight change: results from 3 prospective cohort studies
  5. Association between a pro plant-based dietary score and cancer risk in the prospective NutriNet-santé cohort
  6. A way to reverse CAD?
  7. A low-fat vegan diet and a conventional diabetes diet in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. A randomized, controlled, 74-wk clinical trial
  8. Randomised controlled trial using a whole food plant-based diet in the community for obesity, ischaemic heart disease or diabetes
  9. Clinical events in prostate cancer lifestyle trial: results from two years of follow-up
  10. Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet Alleviates the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis
  11. Association of vegetarian diet with inflammatory biomarkers: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies
  12. Diet and sex-hormone binding globulin, dysmenorrhea, and premenstrual symptoms
  13. The risk of urinary tract infection in vegetarians and non-vegetarians: a prospective study
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