5 Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Life

Article by Stephanie McKercher, MS, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Clif Bar & Company Consultant.

The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. The contents of this article are not intended to make health or nutrition claims about our products. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health and nutrition related activity.

What is the Benefit of Plant-Based Eating?

Are you thinking about switching to a more plant-based diet? New science is emerging about the potential benefits of a plant-based lifestyle for both human health and the environment.

Plant based doesn’t have to mean plant exclusive! You don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to reap the benefits of this lifestyle. There is scientific evidence that suggests eating more plants and choosing a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds can be advantageous for both your wellbeing and the health of the planet.1

How is a Plant-Based Diet Different than Vegan / Vegetarian?

Vegan and vegetarian diets are considered plant-based, but not all plant-based diets are vegan or vegetarian.

An individual who follows a vegan diet eats exclusively plants. For example, someone who identifies as a vegan might eat chickpea avocado toast or a fruit smoothie made with non-dairy yogurt for breakfast.

Vegetarians (also called lacto-ovo vegetarians) enjoy all the plant-based foods vegans eat, but they also incorporate eggs and dairy products into their diet. For breakfast, a vegetarian might have granola with cow’s milk topped with fresh berries or scrambled eggs with fresh veggies.

A plant-based diet is different than a vegan or vegetarian eating pattern in that it doesn’t require the elimination of meat, fish, poultry and seafood. An individual who aligns with a plant-based lifestyle eats primarily plants but may also choose modest amounts of animal-derived foods on occasion. These plant-focused folks that enjoy a bit of meat are sometimes called flexitarians. For breakfast, this person might have baked eggs with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and feta cheese. And, on occasion, this individual might add a strip of bacon or a link of turkey sausage to their morning routine.

How are Plant-Based Diets Healthy?

Plant-based diets that are rich in whole foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are generally high in beneficial fiber, essential nutrients, and phytonutrients (or plant nutrients). From gut health to heart health – this eating style has been linked to several potential benefits – which we’ll dive into below.

5 Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet:

1. Filling Fiber

Most people know that fiber is important but still fall short of recommendations.2 One of the best ways to increase your fiber intake is to shift toward eating more plants. Many observational studies, in which scientists monitor a diet’s impact without controlling what people eat, have concluded that diets rich in plant foods may help support healthy blood sugar control.1 This may be because the fiber in plant foods helps slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. In addition, high-fiber diets have been shown to help curb hunger and provide steady energy to keep you going during a busy day.

2. Phytonutrient Boost

Phytonutrients are beneficial compounds found in plant foods, so it makes sense that eating more colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes will up your intake. Examples of these plant nutrients include carotenoids, anthocyanins and flavonoids – and, emerging science suggests that certain phytonutrients can act as antioxidants and help promote heart health.

3. Gut Health

Early research indicates that the gut microbiome shifts depending on the food we eat. In fact, vegans tend to have less inflammation, more “good” bacteria and less “bad” bacteria in their gut than meat eaters.3 These positive health effects may be thanks to plant-derived prebiotics, or non-digestible compounds which can help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

4. Bone Health

Vegetarian diets tend to be high in bone-supporting vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, vitamin K, and vitamin C. Protein is another essential nutrient key for maintaining the structure of bones, and plant-based proteins - such as legumes and meat alternatives – have been shown to help maintain strong, healthy bones.4

5. Key Nutrients for Every Life Stage

Despite common myths, well-planned, plant-based lifestyles provide all the nutrients we need to thrive. It’s the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the Academy) that plant-based diets (i.e. vegetarian diets) are nutritious and appropriate at every stage of life, including during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Vegetarian eating is also considered appropriate for athletes and highly active individuals who want to build muscle and recover quickly from a tough workout.5 On top of that, according to the Academy, plant-based lifestyles may provide overall wellness benefits and help maintain health.1

How is a Plant-Based Lifestyle Better for the Environment?

Many scientists are encouraging people to eat more produce and less meat for the health of the planet. In 2019, an international team of health and science experts, called the EAT-Lancet Commission, proposed guidelines for feeding a growing population with a more sustainable food system. The commission recommended that most Westernized countries, such as the United States, reduce overall meat intake and shift toward eating more plants.6

A plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes provides essential nutrients and supports a healthy, sustainable food system. This is because plant-based diets tend to have lower greenhouse gas emissions than diets rich in animal foods. Compared to plant-based crops, raising livestock and producing meat has been shown to use more natural resources and have a greater impact on the environment.7

Opting for foods crafted with plant-based ingredients is one way to help support your individual health and the health of our planet. Organic, sustainably-sourced ingredients, like those found in Clif Bar and Company’s foods, have the power to both nourish our bodies and the outdoor spaces where we play.

What Can You Eat on a Plant-Based Diet?

A healthy, plant-based diet should start with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. With that said, no foods are off-limits. For some, a plant-based diet may mean eating less animal protein and more plants at each meal. For others, it may mean limiting animal foods to only special occasions. There is no one size fits all approach and many plant-based eaters continue to enjoy all their favorite foods, from pizza, to tacos, to burgers.

A Day of Plant-Based Meals

What does a day of plant-based eating look like? Here’s an example of a day in the life of a flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan.

FlexitarianVegetarianVegan
BreakfastGranola with blueberries and cow’s milk or yogurtGranola with blueberries and cow’s milk or yogurtGranola with blueberries and soy milk or yogurt
LunchBean + chicken chili with quinoa saladBean chili with quinoa salad + fetaBean chili with quinoa salad
DinnerMushroom + ground beef burger on a whole wheat roll with a side saladPlant-based cheeseburger on a whole wheat roll with a side saladPlant-based burger on a whole wheat roll with a side salad


3 Key Myths About Plant-Based Diets

MYTH: A vegetarian diet is low in protein.

Despite what you may have heard, most vegetarians meet or exceed their protein needs, if they’re eating enough calories. Many plant foods provide protein and some popular options include beans, lentils, nuts, dry peas, tofu, and tempeh. Plant-based meat alternatives (i.e. plant-based burgers, chicken and sausages) and on-the-go snacks, such as LUNA® Bars, are convenient options for those following a healthy, plant-based diet.

MYTH: You can’t get calcium from a vegan diet.

While it’s true that some vegans aren’t getting enough calcium, there are many plant sources of this bone-boosting mineral. Absorption of plant-based calcium can vary widely depending on whether the food contains oxalates (a natural food compound that binds to calcium and reduces its absorption). Absorption rates from high oxalate foods, such as spinach may be as low as 5%, while the calcium in calcium-set tofu and fortified plant milks is absorbed at rates similar to cow’s milk (30%).1,8 The calcium in foods like kale, broccoli, and bok choy is even more readily absorbed than the calcium in cow’s milk (50%). So, for vegans and other plant-based eaters who are eliminating dairy or reducing it in their diets, reach for these high-quality sources of calcium whenever possible.

MYTH: Plant-based eating and athletic performance don’t mix.

Eating a variety of plant foods provides key amino acids and other nutrients needed for optimal athletic performance. Popular documentaries and media stories are spotlighting a trend in which more elite athletes are shifting toward plant-based diets to fuel performance and muscle recovery.9

Plant-based protein options, including peas and soybeans, are good alternatives for those reducing animal-based protein in their diets. Pea protein contains the branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) humans use to build muscle in the body.10 What’s more, initial studies indicate those who consume pea protein may have similar athletic performance to those who use whey.11

References

  1. Melina V, Craig W, and Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian diet. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Dec;116(12):1970-1980.
  2. Quagliani D and Felt-Gunderson P. Closing America’s fiber intake gap. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016;11(1):80-85.
  3. Glick-Bower M and Yeh MC. The health advantage of a vegan diet: exploring the gut-microbiota connection. Nutrients. 2014; 6(11): 4822-38.
  4. Lousuebsakul-Matthews V, Thorpe D, Knutsen R, Beeson W, et al. Legumes and meat analogues consumption are associated with hip fracture risk independently of meat intake among Caucasian men and women: the Adventist Health Study-2. Public Health Nutr. 2013;17(10):2333-2343.
  5. Lynch H, Johnston C and Wharton C. Plant-based diets: considerations for environmental impact, protein quality, and exercise performance. Nutrients. 2018;10(12):1841.
  6. Willet W, Rockstrӧm J, Loken B, Springmann M, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019 Feb 2;393(10170):447-492.
  7. Ranganathan J., Vennard D, Waite W, Dumas P, et al. Shifting diets for a sustainable food future. World Resources Institute. 2016.
  8. Weaver CM, Proulx WR and Heaney R. Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):543S-548S.
  9. Psihoyos, L. The Game Changers. United States: ReFuel Productions; 2019.
  10. Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G, Guérin-Deremaux L, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. whey protein. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015; 12:3.
  11. Banaszek A, Townsend J, Bender D, Vantrease W, et al. The effects of whey vs. pea protein on physical adaptations following 8-weeks of high-intensity functional training (HIFT): A pilot study. Sports. 2019;7(1):12.