What Is a Plant-Based Diet? A Complete Beginner’s Guide

In the United States, having a poor-quality diet is the biggest predictor of early death, according to an article published in the May 2017 Journal of Geriatric Cardiology. A classic American diet that’s high in saturated and trans fats, sodium, and processed meat puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to health and longevity, while a diet that promotes whole foods and plant-based ingredients appears to have the opposite effect.

Indeed, most people who adopt this way of eating do it for the potential health benefits. “There have been many cardiac benefits linked to eating this way, like reduced cholesterol,” Manaker says. “Some studies suggest that eating a plant-based diet may improve fertility parameters, and it also may reduce your risk of developing [type 2] diabetes.” A well-planned plant-based diet can be safe for everyone, including babies, children, and people who are pregnant or nursing, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics noted in its 2016 position paper.

As the following research suggests, a plant-based diet may help reduce the likelihood that you’ll need medication, lower your risk of obesity and high blood pressure, and maybe even help prevent or manage type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Here’s a closer look at possible plant-based diet benefits.

A Reduced Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

In a review published in July 2018 in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that following a plant-based diet (one that included foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and whole grains) was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. The nine studies involved about 307,100 participants, and were adjusted for factors such as smoking status and exercise frequency that otherwise could have affected the results. Researchers therefore deduced that the lower risk was due to participants’ diet choices.

The reason for this lower risk of type 2 diabetes may be improved function of beta cells, which help produce insulin (the hormone that keeps blood sugar levels stable). Past research has noted that as type 2 diabetes progresses, beta cell function declines — and this can cause dangerous fluctuations in blood sugar levels. But a randomized trial found that after just 16 weeks following a plant-based diet, participants had better beta cell function and insulin sensitivity compared with the control group — not to mention improved body mass indexes (BMIs) and less belly fat. Manaker agrees that a plant-based diet can help you manage your weight, and may even lead to weight loss if you follow it in a healthy way. “Most people [who transition from a typical American diet] also start to feel like they have more energy,” she adds.

A Healthier Weight and Blood Sugar Level in People With Diabetes

In another study, which was published in September 2019 in Translational Psychology, researchers concluded that this diet is beneficial for boosting metabolism, managing weight, and reducing inflammation, especially among people with obesity and those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Another study found that a plant-based diet may play a role in preventing and treating type 2 diabetes, and the authors cite research that suggests this diet may help reduce the risk of other chronic illnesses, including cancer. One review suggested that a plant-based diet has a positive effect on emotional and physical well-being, quality of life, and general health for people living with type 2 diabetes, while also improving physical markers of the condition in this population.

A Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

One study linked diets rich in healthy plant foods (such as nuts, whole grains, fruits, veggies, and oils) with a significantly lower risk of heart disease.

Another found that following a diet rich in plant foods and lower in animal foods was associated with a 16 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and 31 to 32 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

There are several factors in play here, including the fact that plant-based diets can decrease cholesterol levels and lower inflammation, according to a case report.

A Reduced Risk of Cancer

Research from the United Kingdom looked at about 475,000 adults who were cancer free at baseline. The participants were categorized as regular meat eaters, low meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians and followed up to check their incidence of cancer 11.4 years later. The low meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians had a lower risk of colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers when compared with regular meat eaters. The researchers suspect a low BMI could also be a contributing factor to the lower cancer risk.

Another study focused on breast cancer specifically and found that individuals who most closely followed a plant-based diet had 67 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those who followed it the least.

One note: If you’re not ready to give up on animal proteins just yet, don’t worry. Another study found that, while adding plant-based proteins to your diet can help lower your risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, there was no increased risk associated with animal proteins. So while it’s not necessary to completely eliminate meats and dairy from your diet, you can still lower your risk of certain diseases by making an effort to include more plant proteins. To set yourself up for success, Manaker suggests making a shopping list heavy on produce, beans, and plant-based proteins to make sure you have plenty of options to reach for when you get hungry.

For Black Americans, who are disproportionately affected by many chronic diseases, a plant-based diet may reduce the risk of heart disease and potentially cancer, according to one review.

A Healthier Brain

A plant-based diet could be helpful for both your body and your mind. While research is mixed, one study involving more than 3,000 adults found sticking with a plant-based diet was linked with better cognitive function, including long-term memory and executive function, though future research should explore the mechanisms behind why this happens.

A Longer Life

Some research links a diet containing higher levels of plant protein with a lower rate of early death from all causes; one review of studies (involving more than 715,000 participants) found that participants whose diets contained the most plant-based protein had a 6 percent lower risk of premature death than individuals who consumed less protein overall. One study of 135,000 individuals found a link between increased intake of fruits, vegetables, and legumes and a lower risk of all-cause early death, with participants reaping maximum health benefits at three to four servings per day — an amount that anyone following a plant-based diet is likely to meet.


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