by Ben Kluvanek*
(4.5 minute read)
In February this year, our city of Adelaide hosted the Nutrition in Healthcare symposium. The symposium was run by Doctors for Nutrition, whose goal is to get health professionals, policy makers, and the general public on board with plant-based foods. So, why does this health organisation support plant-based nutrition so strongly?
In this article, I’ll explain exactly what making the switch can do for your health.
The power of preventive healthcare is known by ancient and modern thinkers alike. One ancient philosopher presciently states that, “trouble is easily overcome before it starts” (Lao Tzu, ch. 64). Likewise, the World Health Organization calculated that over 36 million people die annually from noncommunicable diseases and that, critically, “most of these premature deaths … are largely preventable” (WHO 2013).
Before we get into the evidence, it’s worth taking a quick look at the characteristics that set plant-based diets apart.
- Firstly, plant-based diets involve large proportions of fruits and vegetables, soybeans, legumes, nuts, and vegetable oils (Dinu et al 2017).
- Secondly, plant-based diets tend to involve lower intakes of total and saturated fats (Dinu et al 2017).
- Thirdly, these diets exclude red meats, particularly processed meats, that are known to increase the risk of several diseases (McEvoy et al 2012).
So, can plant-based diets truly help to prevent disease? What does the evidence say?
Protecting against disease
People who eat plant-based diets experience a lower risk of cancer. One analysis of cancer rates found that people who consumed a vegan diet experienced a 15% reduction in their risk of cancers (Dinu et al 2017). This is mirrored by a lower cancer rate among vegetarians (Craig and Mangels 2009; Fraser 2009). The protection against cancer is partially explained by the fact that red meat increases the risk of cancer (McEvoy et al 2012), but the diet as a whole appears to play a protective role (Craig and Mangels 2009).
Plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. The reduced rates of coronary heart disease in vegetarians have been reported by many separate studies (Craig and Mangels 2009; Fraser 2009; McEvoy et al 2012). The protection that plant-based eating can offer against heart disease is, in large part, thanks to lower rates of bad cholesterol (Fraser 2009).
Diabetes, too, can be protected against by plant-based diets. There are lower rates of type 2 diabetes in people who eat vegetarian (Fraser 2009; McEvoy et al 2012). As with cancer, the protection against diabetes partially arises from cutting out red meat (McEvoy et al 2012).
Better health at all stages of life
Aside from protecting against these major forms of disease, a plant-based diet can promote general health and well-being. On average, vegetarians and vegans have a lower body-mass index (Craig and Mangels 2009; Dinu et al 2017). They generally experience a lower risk of obesity (Fraser 2009; McEvoy et al 2012). Vegetarians and vegans also have lower levels of harmful cholesterols (Craig and Mangels 2009; Fraser 2009; Dinu et al 2017).
Most encouragingly, eating plant-based might even help you to live longer. Switching to a vegetarian diet appears to result in a higher life expectancy (Fraser 2009; McEvoy et al 2012).
A common concern among people who are keen to switch to a plant-based diet is whether or not the switch is appropriate for their lifestyle. We want to make the healthiest decision for not only us, but our families. The good news is that a well-planned plant-based diet is suitable for people across the lifespan, whether they are an infant, a child or an adolescent; whether they are pregnant or lactating; or even whether they are an athlete (Craig and Mangels 2009).
Plant-based choices are exploding onto supermarket shelves and restaurant menus. There’s no better time to give plant-based eating a go. The evidence is with you – making wise choices about your diet can protect against harmful diseases and improve your health and well-being.
Note: The evidence cited in this article comes from published scientific journal articles. Specifically, I’m mostly using review articles and meta-analyses – these two categories involve combining the strength of many previously published scientific studies, and therefore represent some of the strongest evidence available to us. They have the backing of decades of dedicated scientific research.
- Craig and Mangels 2009. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109(7). <doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2009.05.027>.
- Dinu et al 2017. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 57(17). <doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447>.
- Fraser 2009.Vegetarian diets: What do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89(5). <doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736K>.
- McEvoy et al 2012. Vegetarian diets, low-meat diets and health: A review. Public Health Nutrition 15(12). <doi.org/10.1017/S1368980012000936>.
- World Health Organization (WHO) 2013. Global action plan for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases 2013-2020. Geneva.
- Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Translated by Gia Fu Feng & Jane English 2013. Vintage.
About the author
* Ben Kluvanek is a researcher in environmental policy. He has degrees in both ecology and economics, and is currently writing his doctoral thesis at the University of Adelaide. His work has been published in leading scientific journals in both ecology and general sciences.