A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology concluded that approximately 7.8 million premature deaths every year may have been prevented if 10 servings of fruits and vegetables were consumed.
While these numbers are staggering, they shouldn't be surprising. Fruits and vegetables provide a wealth of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber our bodies need to function optimally as well as prevent disease and death.
This is why many people are turning to plant-based diets. For some, this means eliminating all animal foods (a.k.a. vegan) or all but eggs, dairy, and/or fish (a.k.a vegetarian). For others, it means eating "mostly plants" as Michael Polan recommends in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.
Outlined below are some specific benefits of eating a plant-based diet:
Several studies have shown that vegetarians, in general, have a leaner body mass and lower rates of obesity. On the other hand, research has also demonstrated a positive association between meat eating and obesity.
However, we must look at these studies with caution. Keep in mind that it is extremely difficult to control for all factors that might influence the results.
The "healthy user bias" might also be at play. For instance, health is one of the key reasons vegetarians choose to eliminate meat. Therefore, they often eat less processed foods and live healthier lifestyles as well.
In addition, the meat eaters in these studies are most likely eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) loaded with refined grains, sugars, and unhealthy fats. It's not clear whether or not these studies would obtain the same results if vegetarians were compared to those following a paleo lifestyle and diet consisting of organic fruits and vegetables and pasture-raised and/or grass-fed animal foods.
Type 2 Diabetes Prevention
According to the Adventist Health Studies, vegetarians are 50% less likely to develop diabetes as compared to nonvegetarians.
But again, meat is most likely not the only factor. Nevertheless, a whole food plant-based may help prevent and treat diabetes.
For example, eating less processed foods will naturally increase one's consumption of vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods. It will also decrease one's consumption of processed foods. This means less refined grains and sweeteners, which will help to balance blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity.
Studies have shown that plant-based eaters consume more nutrients, especially in form of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. And these micronutrients are just as critical to our health as protein, fat, and carbohydrates (a.k.a. macronutrients). They are necessary for all biological reactions (a.k.a. our metabolism). In addition, micronutrients act as powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents.
Fiber is also a nutrient only found in plants. And it plays many important roles. For example, it feeds the good bacteria in your digestive tract. It helps with blood sugar regulation and stool formation. In addition, fiber binds excess cholesterol and helps the body dispose of it.
There is no debate (and never has been) about the health benefits of consuming a diet rich in plant foods, which is why we fully support plant-based diets.
However, we also recognize the value in personalized nutrition and don't subscribe to the one size fits all approach. The key is to focus on eating nutrient-rich whole foods, which should include an abundance of plants whether you're vegetarian or not.
Tuso, P. J., Ismail, M. H., Ha, B. P., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal, 17(2), 61–66. http://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/12-085