You are what you eat. Or, at least, so your mother used to tell you. But unlike some of the other well-meaning advice she doled out (Come on, did toast ever make your hair curly?), this particular phrase is one that’s actually packed with an undeniable level of truth.
Food is an integral part of the human existence. It affects almost every aspect of your being from the size of your waistline and your general health to the state of your bank balance. With that in mind, it’s surprising how little thought many of us actually give to the meals we eat on a day-to-day basis. But, perhaps, we should.
What does it mean to adopt a plant-based diet?
If you’ve yet to hear about the plant-based movement, you’re may well be alone. Research shows that more and more people in are choosing to follow this health-centric new lifestyle. In fact, in 2016 alone, there was a staggering 1,500% increase in the sale of plant-based products here in the UK. That’s an unmistakable sign that the nation’s attitude towards the food we eat is changing dramatically.
You may be wondering what it is about the plant-based diet. The answer is pretty simple. As the name suggests, the main goal of adopting this lifestyle is to get the bulk of your nutrients from food products derived from plants. It’s a highly progressive approach to food since the typical Western diet is comprised of large amounts of meat, egg, and dairy.
Cutting back on these former foodie staples and replacing them with natural alternatives leads to a healthier lifestyle. Recent research, published in the US National Library of Medicine, found that switching to this eating plan can lower your body mass index, your blood pressure, and your cholesterol levels. As though that weren’t enough, it’s cost-effective. That means you can boost your well-being and your bank balance in one simple move.
What plant-based food should you be eating?
The term ‘plant-based’ may feel a little vague to begin with, which is why it will help to educate yourself on this area. At its core, this diet is all about focusing your attention on the foods that will give your body what it needs to be strong and healthy. So, here are some of the major food groups that you ought to be eating:
- Leafy Greens
- Whole Grains
- High-fat whole foods
The more you can work these foods into your regular diet, the better it will be for your health. However, it’s not merely about delving into new realms when it comes to what you put on your plate; it’s also about trying to cut down on some of the more harmful foods that are currently in your diet. Here are some of the groups that you may wish to avoid:
- Processed food
While cutting out these things completely may not be an option for you, simply decreasing the amount that you eat is enough to make a difference. All of the above have potentially damaging effects on the human body, so the less you eat, the better.
Why should you adopt the plant-based lifestyle?
It’s all very well understanding what the diet is, but why should you consider adopting it? In recent years, there’s been a huge array of research into this very area, with results suggesting that eating predominantly plant-based products is one of the healthiest ways to live. So, should you be looking for a new way in which to kickstart your health drive, you may just have found it.
Health benefits of plant-based foods
Dubbed ‘The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted,’ the staggering results of The China Study ‘led researchers to conclude that overall, the closer people came to an all plant-based diet, the lower their risk for chronic disease.’ A study of this nature has not been possible in Western countries, in part due to the fact that there are few living a plant-based lifestyle here. However, this is merely part of a body of evidence which suggests that eating few animal products and more plant alternatives leads to a lower risk of diseases, obesity, and other health-centric problems.
The potential dangers of animal products
On the other side of the same coin, research suggests that eating too much meat can lead to an increased risk in all forms of mortality, i.e. the more animal-based food you eat, the more likely you are to die prematurely. Based on studies like this one, it’s plain to see that the heavily, meat-centric diets we’ve been leading have quite literally been killing us.
Sustainability and the ‘future of food’
Sustainability is very much the word on everyone’s lips when it comes to the future of food and with good reason too. The current impact of the food industries on the planet and environment cannot be ignored. Around the globe, people are starting to wake up to this fact and understand that, if we as a species are to survive, we ultimately need to change the way we produce and consume food products.
“If the world went plant based we’d avoid 8.1 million deaths and save £796 billion in health-related costs per year” – The University of Oxford*
Just two years ago, the 2015 edition of The Dietary Guidelines for Americans introduced a new, illuminating chapter, the focus of which was sustainability. “Addressing this complex challenge is essential to ensure a healthy food supply will be available for future generations,” read the report at the time.
“It’s curious to learn that animal cruelty isn’t the decisive motivator. Rather, concerns about health and the environment are the driving forces” – Toby Wiseman Editor, Men’s Health
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are not alone in their belief that a plant-based diet is the key to sustainability. Industry experts have predicted that 28% of 18-24 year olds will eat an exclusively plant-based diet by 2025. We’re now reaching one of the most critical points of our time and the right decision is staring us square in the face.
More than mere ‘health’ food
A misconception that at time overshadows the ethos behind a plant-based diet is that it’s nothing more than a healthy lifestyle choice. While there are undeniable health benefits to adopting this way of living, there’s so much more to it than that. To make the assumption that it’s all about health is naive and here’s why.
Plant-based diets and well-being
While you may never consider the fact that what you eat affects your well-being, it does.
Each time you sit down for a nutritious meal, it has a direct impact on your lifestyle, mental health, and your general well-being.
For example, some recent research suggests that well-balanced nutrition lowers the risk of dementia. Followers of the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) are less likely to encounter the degenerative brain illness as they age. What’s more, there are also science-backed links between plant-based diets and a person’s emotional well-being.
Plant-based diets can relieve stress
Fast-paced lifestyles and busy social engagements mean many of us suffer from stress. Whether in its mildest form or at a chronic level, it’s crucial that you do something about it sooner, rather than later. Changing your diet may be the answer. Back in 2012, one study on this topic found that after eating a plant-based diet could relieve stress in a significant way. The participants of the study began showing signs of this relief just two weeks into switching their diet. It just goes to show how quickly a small change to your lifestyle can turn things around.
It may also boost productivity
As though that weren’t enough to get you reaching for some tasty legumes, there have also been studies which suggest that plant-based diets can affect your mood and productivity levels. When you’re looking for a little lift – be it emotional or work-related – the food that you eat has more of an impact than you could have known.
Beware: Not All Plant-Based Foods Are Healthy
While, for the most part, plant-based foods are high in the nutrients that our bodies need, don’t make the presumption that all are healthy. You must still be considerate of the meals that you eat. Often enough, meat substitutes, which are increasingly popular among vegans and vegetarians, are packed full of high levels of sugar and harmful fats. You should understand that opting for these alternatives may be as dangerous for your health as eating meat.
“Don’t Eat Food That Doesn’t Rot” – Michael Pollan, Food Author
At the start of 2017, a study by the American College of Cardiology found that some plant-based diets can put individuals at risk of heart disease. Since harmful food products such as sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes and sweets are technically plant-based, the research called for a distinction to be made between them and the healthful alternatives.
The experts also noted that diets including whole grains, unsaturated fats and an abundance of fruits and vegetables “deserve more emphasis in dietary recommendations.” The takeaway is clear; only eat plant-based products that offer you substantial health benefits. And, as acclaimed food author and expert, Michael Pollan puts it, ‘Don’t eat food that doesn’t rot.’
How To Start Your Plant-Based Journey
Of course, the most obvious way in which you can start your plant-based lifestyle is by transforming your current diet. However, you’re only human, and doing so may be easier said than done. With that in mind, here are some handy tips that will help you begin to make positive choices in both the food you eat and the life you lead:
- Begin by introducing ‘meat free’ days into your lifestyle
- Replace meat with pulses, beans, and legumes
- Choose the vegan or vegetarian option when eating out
- Replace cow’s milk with alternatives like soya, almond, or hazelnut
- Experiment with new plant-based recipes and flavours
- Embrace the community of plant-based eaters
- Ask a friend to embark on the journey with you
- Seek advice online and join forums and groups
- Share your experiences on Instagram and Facebook
- Continue to educate yourself on this lifestyle choice
Plunging in at the deep-end may work for some, but if it doesn’t for you, don’t panic. Small, mindful steps are often easier to commit to and could lead to a significant change in your health and well-being. Be kind to yourself as you embark on this journey and take it at a pace that suits you.