Do you want a plant-based diet? Here are the benefits and concerns

Done the right way, a plant-based diet can be a great approach to life. Let’s look at the benefits and concerns you need to be aware of.
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Many people are embracing a plant-based diet today. A plant-based diet has always been a big part of a yoga lifestyle, and several ayurvedic practitioners suggest a largely plant-based diet for many people for optimal health.

    

Done the right way, it can be a great approach. Let’s take a run through all that might be wonderful if you do transition to this approach. Let’s also look at where you need to take caution and how you can make a plant-based approach work for you in the long term.

Benefits of a plant-based diet

Moving towards a plant-based approach, it is very important to differentiate between a vegan diet and a whole food plant-based diet. Any diet that removes all animal foods can be vegan, but that does not necessarily mean that it is healthier.

A diet that removes all animal foods and replaces them with highly-processed toxic foods can still be vegan, but might not be healthy. On the other hand, avoiding processed foods and getting plant sources from whole foods can be a much better option. What are some of the benefits and highlights of a whole food plant-based diet?

1. Has been shown to be beneficial in heart disease

There is a lot of research on how moving towards a plant-based approach instantly increases fibre and antioxidants, both known to be beneficial in the prevention and management of heart disease. 

2. Can protect against some forms of cancer

If there are predisposing factors including genetics and hormones that increase your risk of different cancers, going plant-based can be supportive to prevention. This might also be due to the increased fibre that can boost detoxification and support hormone optimisation, thereby preventing hormone-related cancer. 

Image source: Shutterstock

3. Can be helpful in kidney conditions

Changing a diet that is predominantly acidic in nature and increasing the quantity and variety of plant-based foods, can help to change the pH and support detoxification via the kidneys. However, many plant proteins can be high in oxalates and purines that can also be a problem if you already have elevated uric acid levels. You might need to tweak this based on individual situations. 

4. High in phytonutrients and antioxidants

A plant-based diet that is rich in different coloured fruits and vegetables has been shown to boost antioxidant activity in the body, helping to combat oxidative stress and cellular function. Increasing the number of portions of fruits and vegetables in your day can instantly improve energy levels and your capability to heal overall. 

5. Linked to longevity

Some research links a plant-based diet to increased longevity. Longevity has become a much-studied subject today, and Ayurveda has always brought attention to it, which is linked to the health of the lymphatic system. When there is an increase in plant foods and a reduction in heavy fats, it can help improve liver function. When liver function is optimised, the lymph system works much better as well. 

Concerns regarding a plant-based diet

Naturally, any diet done the wrong way can have a negative impact, and this is where many can go wrong. While those that are much more aware are conscious of the right approach, many people transitioning towards a plant-based approach are often advised by someone who does not know about the right concerns. If you are on a plant-based diet already, or wanting to transition, do pay attention to where you might have challenges.

If your plant-based diet is high in grains, then higher gluten can be very inflammatory (Image source: Pixabay)

1. Can be high in carbohydrates and high FODMAP foods

By default, a plant-based diet can become high carbs, especially if it is not balanced the right way. Remember that most plant proteins also have carbohydrates and many people struggling with health issues do not get optimal protein. If it is higher in starch and lower in fibre, then it can impact blood sugar balance, affect mood, disturb sleep, lead to anxiety, trigger headaches, and affect hormonal balance.

A plant-based diet can also be high in FODMAP foods. These include fermentable foods including fructose, oligosaccharides: fructans, fructooligosaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. FODMAPS are not absorbed by many. They can be fermented by bacteria and cause bloating, can cause or prevent resolution of IBS and can be the reason for unexplained and unresolved gas.

2. Can be high in inflammatory compounds like gluten

If your plant-based diet is high in grains, rather than fruits and vegetables, then the higher gluten can be very inflammatory. It can cause digestive distress for many who have low stomach acid and digestive weakness. That poor digestion can then impact the immune system and increase chronic inflammation. The subsequent poor detoxification can cause other challenges including skin inflammation, hormone dysregulation and mental health symptoms. It can also prevent nutrient absorption when the intestine is congested and inflamed. 

3. Can be high in oxalates

Oxalates are anti-nutrients that can affect mitochondrial function. Oxalates are a molecule found in plants and can be made by the body. When oxalates are high in the body, they bind to calcium forming crystals and can cause pain. When they are not bound to calcium, they can impair mitochondrial function and disrupt mineral absorption. If someone does have problems with mitochondrial function, then energy levels might just crash. 

When you replace many grains and have foods that are high in oxalates including almonds, chia, hemp, peanuts, quinoa, tahini, spinach, and some fruits as well, then the high oxalates can increase pains and uric acid levels.

The best way is to keep rotating your foods, keeping them as balanced and diverse as possible, to avoid anything becoming a problem. No food is a problem unless it is overdone. 

4. Can be challenging for specific nutrients

Some of the common nutrient deficiencies that you can expect with a plant-based approach are omega-3 including EPA and DHA, vitamin A, D, B12, zinc and iron.

Vitamin A can become a problem only for those who do not convert beta-carotene to retinol. In that case, the orange foods may not be adequate. While you can get omega-3 as ALA easily from several plant foods, EPA and DHA are only available as algae for those who are on a plant-based diet. 

This might not suit everyone, or you may not get enough if you are in a high state of inflammation. If so, you might need to supplement with algal oil. B12 is a concern for everyone who is plant-based. Some people do well with nutritional yeast and fermented supplements that are still plant based. But even those in the plant-based research community advise B12 in supplemental form for those wanting a safe long-term plant-based diet. 

Zinc needs to be supplemented since many plant-based foods are high in copper, which is an antagonist of zinc. You only need to look deeper at iron if there are specific issues relating to menstrual bleeding, energy and mood and you find your ferritin levels low. 

There is so much more to this subject but for today, let me leave you with these. If you are considering a long-term plant-based approach, do work with a qualified practitioner who can ensure that you maintain your philosophical and ideological approach in a sustainable way for you.


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Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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