Around here, we’ve found that if you want to optimize health and boost longevity then you need to focus on your day-to-day lifestyle habits. Science reveals the importance of everything from exercise and stress management to sleep and diet. And the research begs the question, how does diet affect longevity and, more specifically, what are the health benefits of the frequently praised plant-based diet?
A Harvard study confirms that a healthy, plant-rich diet helps lower the risk of early death.1
And a massive study in the United Kingdom found that a healthful plant-based diet was associated with a lower risk of mortality and chronic disease.2
But before we delve into the research, let’s get a better understanding of what is a plant-based diet exactly? And how can you easily follow one?
Contrary to what you may think, a plant-based diet is not necessarily meat-free. Rather, it’s a general approach to eating that includes more plant-based foods and fewer animal-based ones.
On the other hand, people who follow a vegetarian diet may eat cheese, eggs, and milk but no meat. Instead of meat, they focus on plant-based proteins. While those who follow a vegan diet forgo animal products altogether.
Another dietary option is dubbed a “flexitarian diet,” and plenty of us are in this camp. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the flexitarian diet is a flexible alternative to vegetarianism. So, you’re still focusing on fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, but you occasionally still enjoy meat.3
Krista Linares, a registered dietitian, is a proponent of the flexitarian approach because she believes it’s more balanced.4 “All people can benefit from the health effects of increasing the proportion of plants on their plates,” she adds.
Will a plant-based diet help you live longer and healthier?
Research says “yes.” Especially when it comes to the health of your heart.
Undoubtedly, one of the most well-known perks of a plant-based diet is that it’s heart-healthy. Analyzing all evidence from clinical trials since 1982 attests to the benefits. This comprehensive review was recently published in the European Heart Journal.5
Researchers found that plant-based diets play a significant role in reducing blocked arteries, thereby lowering the risk of stroke and heart attacks,
“If people start eating vegetarian or vegan diets from an early age, the potential for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease caused by blocked arteries is substantial,” said researcher Dr. Ruth Frikke-Schmidt, chief physician at the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“Importantly, we found similar results across continents, ages, different ranges of body mass index, and among people in different states of health,” Dr. Frikke-Schmidt said in a journal news release.
She noted that researchers couldn’t directly compare the fish-based “Mediterranean” diet against omnivorous diets due to the lack of such studies in scientific literature. “However, the Mediterranean diet is rich in plant-based foods and fish and is well-established as being beneficial in dietary guidelines,” Dr. Frikke-Schmidt said.
It’s important to note that consuming the right kinds of foods on a plant-based diet is critical. To that point, one study showed that less nutritious plant-based diets that included sugary drinks, fruit juices, and refined grains were associated with a slightly increased risk of heart disease.6
How foods can slow or speed up aging
According to a study published in the journal PLOS Medicine, what you eat significantly impacts how you age.7 The research team used data from previous analyses and the Global Burden of Disease Study to create a model estimating the effect on life expectancy from different dietary approaches.8
What did they discover?
The researchers found that people of any age can add years to their life expectancy by switching to a healthier plant-based regimen. People in their 60s enjoyed an increase of an average of eight years by switching from a modern Western diet to a more plant-based diet. But the most significant increase in lifespan was in the 20-something age group, which saw a rise of 11 to 13 years.
Perhaps the benefits are greater when you commit to a healthier diet earlier in life, but experts say it’s never too late. The study adds to a growing body of research showing that eating more plants and fewer processed meats can decrease mortality.
For instance, a 2020 analysis suggests that a high intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and coffee is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality.9 Conversely, a high red or processed meat intake was associated with higher all-cause mortality.
And it’s just the beginning of the amazing anti-aging benefits of a plant-based diet.
How a plant-based diet can slow or prevent
Research suggests that diets rich in veggies and fruits may help slow or prevent cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease in older adults.
It all comes down to the fact that plant-based diets have a higher number of plant compounds and antioxidants. These critical components may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and even reverse cognitive deficits, according to animal studies.10
The results are also encouraging with human trials. A meta-analysisof nine studies including 31,000 people, found that consuming more fruits and vegetables led to a 20 percent reduction in the risk of developing cognitive impairment or dementia.11 Other studies with older adults found that plant-rich diets may be associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment12 and a slower decline in brain function.13
What accounts for these results? Many experts believe it’s due to the polyphenols and plant compounds that are abundant in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
According to one analysis, polyphenols may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and may help reverse cognitive decline.14
Chances are you’re eager to add more plants to your diet after reading all these benefits. But you may ask:
Are there other health benefits of a plant-based diet?
For starters, a plant-based diet may help prevent type-2 diabetes. A study found that a plant-based diet filled with high-quality plant foods decreased the risk of developing type-2 diabetes by 34 percent.15
A plant-based diet may also help prevent cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, the number one way to get cancer-protective nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, is to eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and some animal foods.16
How to start eating a plant-based diet?
Are you a meat and potatoes person who is reticent about switching to a plant-based diet? Never fear; it’s not as hard as you may imagine. There are ways to ease into it. Here are a few tips:
- Redesign your plate – Cover half of your plate with vegetables for lunch and dinner. Remember to eat the rainbow with plenty of different colored fruits and veggies.
- Snack wisely – Partner raw veggies with yummy hummus, guacamole, or salsa.
- Commit to one vegetarian meal a week – Build these meals around a base of beans, veggies, tofu, nut butters, and whole grains. Have fun finding the many vegetarian cooking resources online, too.
- Opt for healthy oils – The American Heart Association suggests monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils. Both fats can help improve your blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated and trans fats. Examples of healthy oils include olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, safflower oil and my personal favorite, coconut oil.
I’m a firm believer that eating more plant-based foods is critical for aging more healthfully. If you struggle with making the right food choices take a page from noted food author Michael Pollan who says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In an interview he suggests that very often, what we’re eating now isn’t food, but rather processed “edible food-like substances.” He offers an easy-to-remember tip: “Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”17
I couldn’t agree more.
The Aging Defeated Team