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August 13, 2021

A plant-based diet offers flexibility while providing a slew of health benefits

The Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of colon cancer, heart disease and stroke while allowing people to enjoy red meat on occasion

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Plant Based Diets Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

A plant-based diet is an approach with growing interest due to its balanced and achievable structure.

It is amazing to think that a phrase dating back to 1826 would still be so relevant today. 

"You are what you eat" is attributed to French lawyer Anthelme Brillat-Savarin writing in the 1800s, though it is American nutritionist Victor Lindlahr who translated the phrase into English in the 1930s and advanced the connection between diet and health.

This history speaks to the deep-rooted connection, a fact overwhelmingly present in contemporary science. As Americans struggle with their weight and with COVID-19 spurring many to rethink their personal health, the search for the right dietary fit is as intense as ever.

At the core of any approach is the ability to meet your individual goals and sustain dietary behaviors over time. With literally thousands of dietary programs, there are clearly a number of options. A plant-based diet is an approach with growing interest, and one that I follow because of its balanced and achievable structure.

Almost 10 million strong

Ipsos Retail Performance examined how plant-based diets have progressed in recent years. The analytics company found that 9.7 million Americans are following a plant-based diet. That's up from just 290,000 people 15 years ago. Other studies have reported that 6 in 10 Americans are transitioning to plant-based diets since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not an all-or-nothing proposition

Harvard Medical School defines a plant-based diet as one focused primarily, but not exclusively, on foods from plants. This includes fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes and beans. According to Harvard, a plant-based diet does not mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy. Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources. The term flexitarian has been coined to capture this approach.

In fact, research published in Consumer Reports showed that flexitarians — those who make plant foods the star of their diets, with meat, fish, dairy and eggs playing a supporting role — were healthier than frequent meat eaters in categories such as colon cancer and heart-­disease risk, and overall mortality.

For context, it is important to note that some notable health care institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and Kaiser Permanente preclude animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and processed foods or sweets from their definitions of a plant-based diet. Still, the preponderance of thought seems to allow these foods as a smaller portion of your meal.

 The Mediterranean diet

Among the most researched plant-based diets, and one that most resembles my personal practices, is the Mediterranean diet. Beyond the flexibility, I like that it originates from the Mediterranean region which is noted for the longevity of its people. 

A publication of the National Center for Biotechnology Information referred to the Mediterranean diet as the gold standard in preventive medicine because of the combination of many elements with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. 

The Mayo Clinic confirms that under the Mediterranean diet, fish, seafood, dairy and poultry are included in moderation, with red meat and sweets eaten only occasionally. According to Mayo, numerous studies have confirmed that the Mediterranean diet helps prevent heart disease and stroke.

Additional health benefits

While the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of colon cancer, heart disease and stroke, there are other notable benefits of plant-based diets. 

The American Heart Association includes obesity and type 2 diabetes on its list of improved health and well-being resulting from a diet with less meat. And, reinforcing the flexible nature of a plant-based regimen, Mayo suggests that lean meats, skinless poultry and fish can be a good source of protein.

Mental health and well-being

Beyond the benefits to your physical health, plant-based diets can have a positive impact on your mental health and well-being., a science-based nonprofit, says that studies have shown plant-based eating can improve emotional states, including depression, anxiety, fatigue, sense of well-being and daily functioning. MD Anderson includes mental health illness within its list of diseases where risk can be reduced through a plant-based diet.

Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of Nutritional & Metabolic Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital cites vegetables as a great source of fiber and reports that high-fiber diets have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, stress and depression due to fiber's anti-inflammatory effect. Naidoo says inflammation tends to be high in people who suffer from these mental health conditions.

Finally, motivation for trying a plant-based diet can be found in a paper from Advances in Nutrition as reported by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The paper explains how dietary patterns that emphasize plant foods can exert neuroprotective effects against the effects of age-related cognitive decline.

Getting started

The University of Tennessee Medical Center offers a number practical tips on getting started on your plant-based diet. Think about your favorite vegetable as the main course and, if you include meat, use it as a garnish or side. Choose good fats like olives, nuts and nut butters, seeds and avocados. Eat fruit for dessert and avoid using any artificial sweeteners.

In addition, the center suggests getting your family or a friend involved. Start the diet with a friend and share recipes. Take your kids shopping and let them pick out a vegetable to add to that night's dinner. Challenge your spouse or partner to try the diet with you. 

Harvard experts suggest building a meal around a salad, including whole grains for breakfast and cooking a vegetarian meal at least one night a week.

You are what you eat

Want to be healthy? Eat healthy. There is a reason why plant-based diets are gaining popularity. They represent a reasonable compromise that acknowledge Voltaire's famous saying that perfection is the enemy of good. 

If you have the willpower and the interest to maintain a diet free of all animal products, then by all means, go for it. For those of us who appreciate being flexitarians and maintaining some degree of healthy dietary practices over the long haul, the plant-based diet can be a welcome option in a crowded field.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.

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