Perhaps you’ve heard about a whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet and are excited to try it. Or maybe it left you wondering why in the world anyone would eat this way. If you’re in the latter group, this post is definitely for you. I’m going to go over some of the major health benefits associated with a WFPB diet. These benefits are all backed by peer-reviewed science, rather than questionable industry-funded studies. So, read on to learn more about what a whole food plant-based diet can do for your health.
There is an ever-growing list of health benefits associated with whole food, plant-based eating. As more information comes out, more people are learning about it and jumping in with both feet. Now we are in an exciting time where more and more studies are hailing the benefits. We’re also seeing more results from those who have jumped in to reclaim their health. This is really encouraging and a great thing for those who really need to see in order to believe. There are testimonials galore all over the web from people who have reversed disease, cleared up irritating health issues and are seeing amazing benefits from living this healthy lifestyle. Read on to learn more about what a WFPB diet can do for you.
Lifestyle vs Genetics
From disease prevention to disease reversal, we as a society are becoming increasingly aware of how important nutrition is. The foods we eat impact not only our overall health but our likelihood of suffering from many chronic diseases as well. Most people believe that most major health issues are genetic and that they have little or no control over them. While there is a genetic component, lifestyle plays a HUGE role in your health outcomes. Genes only function when activated or expressed and nutrition plays a critical role in gene expression. As they say, genetics loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger.
Migrant studies help to illustrate the importance of environment and lifestyle on genetic expression. When people from countries with relatively low incidents of disease move to countries with high rates of disease, their disease risk climbs to that of those in the new country. Why? This happens because they begin to adopt the diet and lifestyle of the host country. While their genetic risk started out relatively low, their lifestyle changes made all the difference. In fact, Nobel prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn is credited with an amazing discovery on gene expression. She found that over 500 genes change in just 3 months on a vegan diet. Those changes included turning on genes that prevent disease as well as turning off genes that promote diseases like breast and prostate cancers, heart disease and more.
The current western diet is centred around animal products and processed food. One of the problems with animal-based foods is that they are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Consumption of saturated fat is directly linked to a rise in cholesterol levels. The link is so strong that an equation was developed, the Hegsted equation. It can reliably predict the rise in cholesterol you will experience based on the amount of saturated fat you consume. Excess cholesterol can then build up in the wall of your arteries, leading to heart disease.
Saturated fat exists mainly in animal foods, in fact, there are few sources of saturated fat in the plant kingdom, and the proportions are generally lower than animal products. For example, cheddar cheese contains approximately 21 grams of saturated fat in a 100g serving, while an avocado only contains 2.1 grams in that same 100g serving. So, eating a whole food, plant-based diet, free of oils, will drastically reduce your risk of heart disease.
Not only will you be reducing your risk for this chronic disease, eating WFPB has been shown to be effective in reversing it. Doctors Caldwell Esselstyn and Dean Ornish (among others) have both published studies on their success in not only halting but reversing heart disease using a plant-based diet. This is the only dietary pattern that has been shown to actually reverse the progression of chronic disease. That fact alone puts it head and shoulders above the rest.
Type 2 Diabetes
If you have type 2 diabetes, you may have been told to watch your carbohydrate intake. This, unfortunately, will do nothing to affect the underlying cause. You see, a high-fat diet (especially saturated fat) has been found to cause insulin resistance, eventually leading to type 2 diabetes. Basically, excess fat in the blood and tissues gum up the insulin receptors, which keep insulin from working properly. Insulin is responsible for allowing glucose to move from the bloodstream into the cells for use or storage. When it can’t effectively do its job the result is higher blood glucose levels. (A more in-depth explanation of that here). So, the typical advice given to diabetics won’t do anything for the underlying cause. In fact, it will likely worsen things, as when you cut carbohydrates you end up increasing protein and fats. Both of which can increase your overall fat consumption, further feeding your insulin resistance.
It’s important to remember that a high blood sugar level after consuming carbohydrates is a symptom of type 2 diabetes, not the cause. While you may see a rise in blood sugars after consuming carbohydrates, this is only because your insulin isn’t able to work as it should. It’s not the carbs fueling insulin resistance, but fat. Similarly, your blood sugars may appear better on a low-carb diet, but the underlying insulin resistance is getting worse.
Doctors have had great success in helping patients, not only manage, but reverse their type 2 diabetes with a low-fat whole food plant-based approach. This diet is high in complex carbohydrates from foods like whole grains, starchy vegetables and legumes. It allows people to clear the excess fat from the bloodstream and regain insulin sensitivity. There are a number of studies from the 1930s onward showing the positive effects of a plant-based diet on controlling and reversing type 2 diabetes. In one such study, about 50% of patients were able to significantly reduce or completely halt their diabetes medication within about 2 weeks. That’s powerful stuff.
What if you don’t currently have type 2 diabetes? Well, it’s worth noting that those who eat entirely plant-based (no animal products at all) drop their type 2 diabetes risk by 78% compared to their meat and dairy eating counterparts. Prevention is an important tool.
Ok, so there’s evidence showing that both heart disease and type 2 diabetes can be prevented and reversed with a healthy plant-based diet, but what about cancer? Well, after tackling heart disease, Dr. Ornish was not finished. He went on to investigate the effects of plant-based eating on prostate cancer. His results were more than encouraging, a plant-based diet had drastically increased his subjects’ ability to fight cancer cells. A similar study was conducted with breast cancer patients and showed a marked difference in cancer-fighting ability after only two weeks on a plant-based diet.
Another remarkable study was conducted by Dr. T Colin Campbell, on the effect of casein protein (the main protein found in cow’s milk) on rats. That study found that rats fed a 20% casein diet showed aggressive growth of liver tumours vs the group fed only 5% casein. What was even more interesting is that when he switched the groups, he found that the tumours in the once 20% casein group, shrunk significantly when switched to a 5% casein diet and those moved from the 5% diet experienced rapid tumour growth when moved to the 20% group. Similar attempts made with soy and wheat protein did not result in the increased cancer growth promoted by the casein, these results were exclusive to the animal-based protein. Certainly, some food for thought.
It’s also important to note that certain animal products are known to be carcinogenic to humans. Processed meat (including things like bacon, hot dogs and deli meat) has been classified as a group 1 carcinogen. This means there is enough empirical data to show that they can cause cancer in humans. Further to that, read meats are currently classed as a group 2A carcinogen. This means there is enough data to show that red meat probably causes cancer in humans, but not yet enough to say with certainty. So, if you’re aiming to reduce your cancer risk, it’s advisable to avoid both processed and red meat.
Plant-based diets can also help fight ageing. A chromosome is like your genetic suitcase. It contains all of your DNA information. Each end of your chromosome is capped off by something called a telomere. Much like the end of your shoelaces protect them from fraying, telomeres protect the DNA strands from damage. As we age, these telomeres gradually shorten, leaving us at increased risk of DNA damage, disease and other signs of ageing.
However, different lifestyle choices can affect the rate of deterioration, either in a positive or negative way. A study on the effect of positive lifestyle changes (including a daily walk and a low-fat, plant-based diet) found that these changes could significantly increase telomere length in just 3 months. Other studies showed some reduction in regression of telomere length based on factors of exercise and weight loss, but none showed the significant increase that was seen when diet was adjusted as well. So, if the fountain of youth really exists, it may be as close as the end of your fork.
Science shows us that a plant-based diet can reduce your risk for diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. It can even reverse them in some cases and slow the ageing process. This was enough to convince me to give it a try, but there are a number of other benefits that can be seen.
What other health concerns can be reversed or improved with a plant-based diet?
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Inflammation based disorders
Irritable bowel syndrome
This is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other benefits as well, but I’d be here all day trying to share each and every one with you. In general, people who adopt a whole food plant-based diet report amazing effects like more energy, better sleep, lower frequency of illness and improved mood. Sounds a lot better than the side effects to popular medications given to combat some of the diseases discussed above.
The Bottom Line
The more people I talk to about this lifestyle, the more benefits I see them reaping in their lives. If you stop to think about it, our bodies are pretty amazing. They can repair themselves, heal from injury and fight off disease. All we really need to do is stop standing in our own way. When you eat a diet full of nutrient-rich plant foods, your body has all it needs to keep you in peak health. So, whether you are trying to reverse one of these diseases, or avoid them entirely, a whole food, plant-based diet is a cost-effective way to do just that. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure.