In the United States, diet is the biggest predictor of early death. (9) 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. As the following studies show, adopting 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. (9)
In a review published in July 2019 in JAMA Internal Medicine, (10) 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 (11) — and this can cause dangerous fluctuations in blood sugar levels. But a randomized trial published in February 2018 in Nutrients (12) 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 plant-based diet could be helpful for both your body and your mind. One study published in September 2019 in Translational Psychology (13) set out to answer that question, and the results turned out mixed. While 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), they didn’t confirm whether this diet can positively affect mental function. Don’t rule it out yet, though — the researchers noted that there’s plenty of potential for future studies to explore the subject further.
And if you’re not ready to give up on animal proteins just yet, don’t worry. Another study, published in August 2019 in JAMA Internal Medicine, (14) 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.