By Susan Friedman, M.D.
It’s a New Year. If you want to make a change that will help you be a better you, and help make the world a better place, consider going plant-based.
You may have heard the term before, but what does it actually mean? “Plant-based” is shorthand for eating a whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diet.
What is that, exactly?
It is a diet that centers on plant foods from four categories: vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes (beans, peas and lentils). The “whole-food” part means minimally processed — nothing good removed, and nothing bad added. Think brown rice instead of white, and potatoes instead of potato chips.
Why? Glad you asked! Here are 10 reasons to start you off with:
1. Reduce the risk of chronic disease
About 90% of adults in this country will eventually get one or more chronic diseases — conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease. The usual progression is one of more chronic illness, more pills and worse health over time. But there is good news. It has been estimated that 70-80% of our chronic illnesses are preventable through lifestyle, and what we eat is the No. 1 lifestyle risk factor implicated in early mortality. So that gives you three opportunities each and every day — breakfast, lunch and dinner — to improve your health! A WFPB diet has been shown to prevent, treat and even reverse some of our most common chronic conditions. A low-fat WFPB diet is the only dietary pattern that has been demonstrated to reverse established heart disease. Type 2 diabetes, which will affect one in three Americans born after the year 2000 – and one in two people of color — can sometimes be reversed with a WFPB diet.
2. Sleep better and increase your energy
Sleep is essential for health. Consistently getting a good night’s sleep helps you think better, helps your immune system, reduces blood pressure, helps you manage stress, keeps your heart healthy and helps you manage weight, among other things. Unfortunately, one in three Americans are chronically sleep deprived. People who eat plant-based diets tend to sleep better, and this can happen pretty quickly when you change what you eat.
A better night’s sleep will help you be more energetic during the day. So will the weight loss that you will likely experience (see No. 4 below). But the increase in energy that many people experience happens quickly after they switch to a WFPB diet — even before substantial weight loss. One reason is the complex carbohydrates found in foods like beans, vegetables and whole grains. These take longer to digest, and so you don’t get the spikes and drops in your blood sugar that can leave you feeling tired.
3. Improve mood
WFPB eating can be good for your mood! This can result both from what you are leaving out, as well as what you are adding in. Ditching the animal products has been shown to improve mood in two weeks. Adding in complex carbohydrates stimulates serotonin release — this is a chemical in the brain that boosts happiness and well-being. Quercetin, a chemical found only in plant foods, increases multiple chemicals in the brain, including serotonin. Apples, kale, berries, grapes, onions, and green tea are good sources of quercetin.
4. Manage weight
Eating a plant-based diet is a great way to lose weight without dieting. Plants are naturally lower in calories than animal foods and processed foods, with fewer calories for a given volume. Have you ever looked at the nutritional information on a typical salad tub? A 16-ounce tub has a total of 100 calories. Imagine how full you could get on just 100 calories! Another reason that plant-based eating helps with weight loss is that plants are full of fiber. A randomized controlled trial — the gold standard for clinical studies — compared a WFPB diet to usual care, and found that people in the plant-based arm lost an average of more than 26 pounds in six months, without limiting calories or exercising. To repeat — participants weren’t counting calories or limiting what they ate — they just ate till they were full. What’s more, when people were surveyed at one year, they had sustained the weight loss — avoiding the setbacks of yo-yo dieting.
5. Reduce chronic pain
The Standard American Diet creates a state of low-level, chronic inflammation. This not only drives a lot of our chronic illness, but is a factor in chronic pain. Many people who switch to a plant-based diet notice that their joints are less achy and other pains have improved as well.
6. Better for the environment
Eating a WFPB diet is the single best thing that an individual can do to improve the environment. A plant-based diet conserves water, cuts your carbon footprint and leads to cleaner air. There are so many examples to choose from, but consider these: It takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce just one gallon of milk. It takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. So if you eat one less quarter pounder, that is the equivalent of almost an entire month’s worth of showers! Furthermore, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that farm animals raised in factory farms generate about 500 million tons of manure a year — three times more waste than is generated by humans. To put it in perspective, that is enough poop to completely fill every house in Monroe County — over six times. It has been estimated that every day that you eat a plant-based diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 30 square feet of forest, and 20 pounds of CO2. If you are worried about climate change and the impact on generations to come, this is a great way to be a better ancestor.
7. Reduce social inequities
It takes about 100 times more water to produce a pound of animal protein than it does to produce a pound of grain protein. If we are concerned about feeding the nearly 8 billion people on the planet, it is easier to do if we are eating lower on the food chain, and “cutting out the middleman.”
8. Opportunity to explore other cultures
When you start to eat a WFPB diet, it can open up whole new worlds of cuisine. Many cultures are “plant-centered,” and you can find all kinds of wonderful WFPB recipes from countries in every continent (except maybe Antarctica). Moving toward a plant-based diet is an opportunity to explore new flavors, new spices, new foods. Plus, when you move to a plant-based diet, and “detox” from the high-fat, high-salt, processed foods in the standard American diet, you will be amazed at how your taste buds “wake up” and appreciate this new range of taste sensations.
9. Better for animals
Clearly, animals do better when we don’t eat them. But beyond that, there are other reasons that eating plant-based is better for animals. About a third of land that is suitable for growing crops is used for animal agriculture — producing the food that feeds the animals that are used for meat. This leads to outcomes like deforestation and destruction of native vegetation, which in turn reduces natural habitats for many animals, and puts them at risk for extinction. And animal agriculture can create terrible lives for the animals involved.
10. Save money
There is a perception that eating plant-based is very expensive. Actually, the opposite is true. The staples — items like beans, grains, root vegetables — are inexpensive and filling. Buying frozen food in bulk and fruits and vegetables in season can help save money. And remember that it is expensive to be sick. We spend 90% of our $3.35 trillion healthcare budget on patients with chronic disease. That works out to over $9,000 per person per year. Imagine how much money we could save — individually and collectively — if we were healthy! To quote Michael Pollan, a food writer, “it’s better to pay the grocer than the doctor.”
Hopefully, this list will give you some food for thought. Give it a try for a couple weeks — better yet, go plant-based with a loved one or a friend. What have you got to lose? A few pounds, several points on your cholesterol, fatigue? It could be the start of a whole new you.
For more information on what plant-based nutrition can do for you, go to https://nutritionfacts.org/ or www.forksoverknives.com/.
Physician Susan Friedman is a professor of medicine and geriatrics at the University of Rochester. She serves as the medical director of the Rochester Lifestyle Medicine Group, and the director of clinical studies at Rochester Lifestyle Medicine Institute.