Why plant-based eaters are the new flexitarians
Lisa A. Beach
While some people turn to plant-based diets for health reasons, not everyone comes to embrace a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle for the same reason. Just ask award-winning vegan chef, Mark Reinfeld. “There are three different doorways that people go in if you ask them why they eat plant-based, and the doors all go into same room. One is health or medical, one is for environmental or sustainability reasons, and the other is for concerns for animal welfare or non-violence. Whatever your main reason, once you’re in the room, you can embrace those other reasons,” he explains.
The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AAND) states that “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful and nutritionally adequate.” And recent studies show that plant-based eating, including vegan diets, deliver a variety of health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Recognizing that a vegan diet is suitable for all ages and stages of life, AAND goes on to say that “vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity.”
Following a vegan diet is simply a healthier, more natural way of eating, according to Leslie Durso, a vegan chef and food allergy specialist based in Marina del Rey, CA. Why? “Your body knows what to do with it—plants are easy to digest and deliver all the nutrients your body needs,” she says. Plants are loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber—all of which help treat and prevent common illnesses.
A nutrient-poor diet, on the other hand, can wreak havoc on your health. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “dietary factors were estimated to be associated with a substantial proportion of deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.”
“There’s been lots of research on plant-based diets preventing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer for several different very interesting reasons, around how the actual chemicals in these plant foods interact in the body,” says Ashley Boudet, ND, wellness consultant and co-author of <The Ultimate Age-Defying Plan: The Plant-Based Way to Stay Mentally Sharp & Physically Fit>. “Plants have micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients like carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Where they really prevent disease is in the micronutrients, which help to rebalance the body system,” she explains.
Part of the macronutrient category is fiber, and animal foods don’t really have fiber, continues Boudet. “When we’re talking about gut health, often it’s that people aren’t getting enough plant fiber, and that’s what causes issues in the digestive system.”
In addition to fiber, specific nutrients in plant-based diets help create healthy bacteria to support a balanced microbiome, say Reinfeld. “Specifically, B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, beta-carotene, and phytochemicals all have anti-inflammatory qualities that help balance the microbiome and digestive system,” he explains.
“When you eat a piece of kale, your body knows what to do with every single vitamin and how to break it down,” explains Durso. “Plants are automatically going to have more fiber, antioxidants, plant compounds, and vitamins, so it’s not such a strain on your system. Eating a high-fiber diet helps flush everything out of your system and keeps you healthy.” Eating a plant-based diet helps you feel full, have regular bowel movements, and aid in disease prevention due to reduced inflammation in the body.
Unfortunately, many people suffer from digestive issues. According to the National Institutes of Health, digestive diseases impact between 60-70 million Americans. Gut-related issues include allergies, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gallstones, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and others.
“A high-fiber, properly planned diet like veganism can keep the gut lining healthy and may help with lowering the risk of allergic reaction to food,” Durso points out. “There are a ton of benefits of eating a whole-food, plant-based diet when it comes to your gut health and all the enzymes and probiotics in your stomach,” she adds.
According to Reinfeld, the biggest culprit in terms of food allergies is dairy. “If people with lactose intolerance ate a plant-based diet instead of taking TUMS or other stomach ailment medication, that would help a lot.” He also noted that eggs and glutens are also foods that commonly cause allergies or intolerance. “However, gluten is much easier to adjust to because there are many gluten-free foods, and plant-based selections have never been more available.”
But gut health means more than just a properly functioning digestive system. Many experts link gut health to our overall well-being, with studies showing it can influence and even improve heart disease, cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune illnesses.
“We’re finding now how your gut health can affect your brain and the rest of your entire body. Everyone thought the brain was the epicenter of your body and now we’re thinking it might actually be your gut” says Durso.
When talking about the digestive system, it’s important to build and balance the microbiome, and you do that with fermented plant foods, notes Boudet. “Plants are naturally anti-inflammatory because of the phytonutrients that help balance systems,” she says, “and also because some of those vitamins and minerals are important in the pathways that balance out inflammation. Without those nutrients, it’s harder to calm the inflammatory process that’s happening.”
Boudet points out that when people are told they have to give up a food, it’s often foods that make them feel full (like cheese), and it’s something they’re reacting to. “The way the body responds is almost like an addiction,” she explains. “It can be a gradual process to get off of those foods and add in healthy, digestible plants. While it can take a few months to eliminate the allergen foods, people end up eating more of a variety of foods.”
Inflammation is how the body repairs itself, so some level of inflammation is normal. When it comes to inflammation, Boudet says naturopathic medicine focuses on three main factors:
In addition to the health benefits, a profound sense of joy can come from a plant-based diet.
“For me, the deepest joy (of eating vegan) is to bring as little suffering into the world through my daily actions,” says Reinfeld. “Sharing that information with others through our business makes us feel like we’re helping to create a more sustainable future and connecting us to our sense of purpose and passion.”
Boudet echoes this sentiment, saying, “Becoming completely plant-based brought a very spiritual change for me. It made me feel more connected to earth, to nature, to animals, to everything. It was an unexpected change.” She shares her joy of veganism with her family, too. “I enjoy eating more than I ever did before,” she says, noting that her husband is a chef who loves to cook. “Plus, I love seeing our kids enjoying plants and getting excited about eating sprouts or celery or pulling up carrots and broccoli in our garden. This allows us to talk about where our food comes from, and how we’re connected to nature.”
And Durso says, “Your mind is healed just as much as your body is healed when you switch (to a vegan diet). It really gives you peace of mind—you’re eating in harmony with nature, you’re helping the environment, the animals, and your own health."
What’s the Difference?
Plant-based can mean a variety of things, such as eating mostly plants but still consuming some animal products such as meat/poultry/fish, eggs, and dairy. But it can also mean vegetarian (mostly plants, no meat/poultry/fish, but some animal products such as eggs and dairy) and vegan (all plants, no meat/poultry/fish, no animal products).
Regardless of which type of diet you follow, they all focus on eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats (like olive oil). While eating vegan can be healthy (such diets typically contain more fiber and less saturated fat and salt), it does require a bit of planning. Why? To balance a vegan plate and ensure you get enough protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12.
NOURISH your way to health
words | Mark Reinfeld and Ashley Boudet, ND
When it comes to healthy aging, there’s no question nutrition plays a crucial role. But several other important factors also have been shown to contribute to creating a long, healthy, and happy life. We have created a simple acronym that can help you remember all these factors so you can easily include them in your day-to-day. Our philosophy, in a word, is NOURISH [SETBOLD].
N is for Nutrition. What you eat is the foundation for a healthy body. You can protect and strengthen your body by learning how to prioritize great nutrition.
O is for Oxytocin, the “happiness hormone.” There are things you can do every day to stimulate this hormone in your brain, including exercise, getting outside and connecting with nature, and meditating.
U is for “Use It or Lose It.” It is never too late to strengthen your body or stretch your brain. Your body is meant to move regularly, and the benefits of regular exercise, no matter how gentle or strenuous, are phenomenal in keeping your body functioning optimally.
R is for Relationships. Having meaningful social interactions is more important than ever. Sharing your story and being willing to open yourself to others in service can be true medicine for the soul.
I is for Intention. Intentional living means being mindful and present in your actions and proactive in your life choices. Know your values and your vision for your life well, and act from that place.
S is for Sleep. Sleep serves a very important function: a daily reset of your body and mind. Regular circadian rhythms, or sleep- wake cycles, are essential for regulating all hormonal and metabolic processes in the body.
H is for Hydration. Water is life! Remember that water is the number one medicine for fatigue, sinus congestion and allergies, dry skin, headaches, heart palpitations, constipation, spasms, indigestion, and many more common ailments.