One important lesson I learned while I was growing up is that in order to have a healthy body, I needed to have a really wide diet. This included different kinds of meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, vegetables and a few cheating foods from time to time. Eating only a few of these products tended to go for an unbalanced diet.
Yet, nowadays, we hear more and more about vegetarian, plant based or vegan diets. They are praised for helping you have a healthy lifestyle and for having great benefits such as being environmentally friendly. Some say these diets offer all the nutrients and vitamins your body needs for a healthy normal development.
Vegetarian, plant based and vegan diets
Before we enter into more details, let’s look at what these important terms mean. Vegetarian, plant-based diet, is there a difference between them? Although sometimes they may refer to the same thing, there can be some variations. When speaking of vegetarian, we can refer to:
- Traditional/simple vegetarian diet – consists of plant based products, excluding animal products (meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs)
- Lacto-vegetarian diet – besides plant based products, it also includes dairy products
- Ovo-vegetarian diet – besides plant based products, it also includes eggs
- Ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet – includes plant based products, eggs and dairy
- Pescatarian diet – Includes plant based products and fish
A vegan diet excludes all products of animal origin (sometimes even honey) and includes only plant based ones. Raw vegan refers to uncooked and unprocessed (plant based) food. Basically, this diet includes raw vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, seeds and mushrooms.
Now that we understand what these diets mean and what foods they involve, we can move on to the benefits they have.
Plant based diets suitable and healthy for all kind of ages
Food plays a crucial role in our development. In order to have a healthy body and mind, we need to eat different types of food. From chicken to beef meat, vegetables, fruits, cereals, grains and the list goes on. Passed down from generation to generation, this idea has grown strong roots into our society.
Following a diet which only includes fruits and vegetables may not be considered good for a healthy growth for different reasons. Some may say it doesn’t contain the vitamins your body needs to develop healthily, it’s not nutritious enough and it my create deficiencies (e.g. iron deficiency).
Yet, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says following a well-planned plant based diet is suitable and healthy for people with all kind of ages. This includes infants, children, adolescents, young and old adults. What is more, those who start following such a diet in childhood may have a lower risk of developing a chronic disease later in life. This means they develop well and put the basis of a healthy life.
If we were to look back in time, we would see our ancestors relied heavily on plants. Researchers found at an archaeological site in northern Israel a camp where humans lived and remains of the food they ate. They identified at least 55 edible plant species: different fruits seeds, nuts, roots, tubers and leaves. Although their diet also included meat, it is clear that plant based food was an important source of energy for them. It provided food for the periods when they couldn’t hunt.
Plant based diets date back to ancient times, showing us that following such a diet may not affect how our body develops.
Plant based diets and diseases
Following a plant based diet can bring great benefits for our health. Studies have shown they can prevent certain diseases. Great results were seen in the case of type 2 diabetes. The risk of suffering from this illness may be reduced by 62% by following a plant based diet.
When it comes to cancer, these diets can reduce the risk of it in general by 18%. Going more specifically, the risk of prostate cancer can be lowered by 35%.
Heart conditions are an important category as well. They can be reduced by 32% and the risk of heart attacks is lowered by 10 to 29%.
Plant based diets and the environment
Plant based diets can have a great impact on the environment, as they play an important role in maintaining a clean and healthy planet. They can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 29 to 50%. How is this possible? These diets seem to require less water, fossil fuel, pesticides and fertilizers than diets which involve meat.
To produce 1 kg protein from kidney beans requires 18 times less land, 10 times less water, 9 times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer, and 10 times less pesticide in comparison to producing 1 kg protein from beef.
Plant based diets can bring great benefits, but they may not be for everyone. Before starting to follow such a diet, it is essential to seek the advice of a specialized doctor. He can tell you if you need to keep certain products in your diet (e.g. eggs, dairy) or if you need to avoid specific fruits and vegetables. If you are predisposed to allergies, he may recommend you to stay away from nuts and similar products and offer you suggestions on how to replace them.
Plant based diets work best when they are well planned and adapted to the lifestyle and body of a person.