Health Benefits of Plant Based Diets: You Are What You Eat
by Madison Cavallaro
In the 21st century, a spectrum of different diets has risen. Increasing awareness of health and nutrition related to disease and illness has led to the science community pursuing research of diet and its impact on health. Now with better scientific understanding, it can be said plant-based eaters experience benefits every day in physical ways such as, skin and hair, and improvements in mental health. By the time you are finished reading this article you may be inspired to make the switch.
A typical western diet has been considered a plague because of the excess of chronic illnesses that have been related to it. Obesity, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, and hypertension have become far too common among Americans especially in the last two generations.1 Overall, the average American diet consists of excessive sodium, refined grains, saturated fat, and sugar.2 According to the CDC, as recent as 2017, only 1 in 10 adults met the federal fruit and vegetable recommendations.3 While I’m sure few of us are surprised by this, the reason for the barriers to fruit and vegetable consumption are vast and needs some serious focus. If you are reading this as a conscious consumer, let me share why veganism possibly hit an all-time high in 2020.4
Benefits of Plant-based Eating on Skin
If there is one thing many people had in common, no matter what your diet consisted of, it was that 2020 brought on the desire to come out of the pandemic with our skin glowing. Well, let me introduce you to my friend Gerontotoxin; a huge contributor to systematic inflammation. It’s commonly contained in meats and processed foods in large amounts. It is responsible for excessive AGEs (advanced glycation end-products), and ironically enough, these manifest into rapid stiffening of collagen, elastin, and other skin-important proteins.5
If I just blew your mind, let me back it up a few steps. Skin cells, like all other cells in our bodies, are constantly dying off and being replaced. As we age, human skin cells lose cell function leading to aging, loss of elasticity, dryness, and wrinkles. When AGEs accumulate in the body, they are not under control enzymatically and have free rein in glycation. Not only do AGEs impact the cosmetic appearance of skin, but it also leads to poor wound healing and development of malignant conditions.5
In addition to AGEs, skin receives additional threats from ROS (reactive oxidative species). Oxidative damage is another threat to acceleration of the aging process. Luckily, antioxidants exist to deflect ROS from manifesting and are considered the skin’s top defense mechanism. Vitamin A, E, C, and Chlorophyll are all examples of antioxidants that feed the skin the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and without oxidative damage.5 The best foods to obtain these you might ask? Vegetables and berries, of course.
If you’re all about healthier, younger looking skin, I might suggest trying a plant-based diet before spending all your savings on GOOP skincare.
Plant-based Eating and Hair Growth
Another fad that came out of 2020 and staying home was obsessing over your hair. For me that meant dying my hair every two weeks depending on my mood, but for many others it was promoting hair growth and health. Just like with the skin, antioxidant rich foods, provide beneficial compounds. Related to hair, antioxidants protect the hair follicle against damage and prevent it from becoming brittle. Specifically, vitamin C, produces collogen and helps the body absorb iron. Collogen is a protein noted to prevent hair breakage whereas low iron is associated with anemia and commonly coupled with hair loss.6 Other vitamins that are essential in hair health are vitamin D, E, A, zinc, biotin, and B vitamins. These vitamins and their precursors occur in plentiful amounts in spinach, avocados, nuts and seeds, sweet potatoes, beans, and many more fruits and vegetables. These foods are staples in a plant-based diet and research shows a diet rich in these foods promotes hair growth, sebum production for the hair follicle, and helps strengthen the strands to keep the hair healthy.6 Even if going completely vegan isn’t in your future, adding more fruits, vegetables, and legumes to your diet will aid your body in more ways than one.
Plant-Based Eating and the Beneficial Effects on Health and Disease Management
As diets closer to entirely plant-based (vegetarian, vegan, and pescatarian) have become more popular in the last 7 years, research to understand plant-based diet’s impact on mental and physical health have surfaced due to increased interest. A review of literature on the subject found that what all these research studies had in common was the immediate short-term effects on weight, insulin, and inflammation. To put it plainly, this is huge for western culture that significantly struggles with obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses linked to high mortality rates.7 Even more, the most recent research reported significant metabolic improvements such as lowering glycated hemoglobin (a marker for glucose levels in diabetes), compared to an omnivore, conventional diet. One of the results that may sound shocking is that in the studies where calorie consumption was the same, participants that followed a vegan diet showed higher and sustained weight loss and metabolic status.7
Another notable finding across plant-based diet literature is the significant role in gut bacteria diversity. The science community is very aware of the diet influencing the gut, but it wasn’t until recently did research show that vegetarian and vegan eaters experience more protective bacteria and reduction of intestinal inflammation.7 How this specifically happens is still unknown but the link of a healthy gut with plant-based eating can’t be ignored.
Plant-Based Eating and Mental health
Of all research related to plant-based diet and health, there is limited findings related to mental health and this diet. Research has had inconclusive findings, meaning, it could not be said one way or another the positive or negative effects this diet might have. Even so, there is significant support behind the microbiome-gut-brain-axis having an effect on mood and mental health.
Yes, you are reading that correctly, your brain and gut do indeed talk to each other. Don’t worry they probably aren’t talking about you behind your back, but the brain and gut are definitely communicating to dictate intestinal activities, leaving the opportunity for the gut to influence mood, cognition and mental health. This communication system expands over your endocrine, metabolic, and immune routes of communication. Research has shown reputable links of several mood disorders (depression, anxiety) and autism spectrum disorders with gastrointestinal disruptions. The reverse has also been linked; gastrointestinal disorders (irritable bowel diseases) often have well-established psychological comorbidities.8 To make a long story short and to sum up years of research into a few sentences, the composition of your gut bacteria has the potential to impact cognitive function and mood and your brain has the opposite potential on your gut. So, with this in mind, for optimal health, feeding your body a diet rich in vegetables to promote good bacteria, will feed your brain as well. This research is just the start of well-established mechanisms involving diet and mental health. Just a few years ago I was generating research on diet impacting autism spectrum symptoms and other researchers looked at me like I had three heads. Now, it is commonly accepted that diet has an impact on your health in more ways than just solving your hunger.
You Are What You Eat
These are words I live by and I would consider adding them to your everyday mantra. While nutrition research is booming and there are still connections between health and diet that are ambiguous, what is undeniable is that you are what you eat. Your heart, metabolic and endocrine systems, as well as your skin, hair, and mood are reflective of what you put into your body. If there is one thing you can do for yourself to take a step in the right direction for your health, it is to start incorporating more plant-based foods and reducing your intake of animal meats. Though there are many reasons to go completely plant-based, focus on your own realistic expectations. Labeling of diets creates an “all or nothing” mentality, be your own guide and follow your needs. When your put your specific desires first, you will more likely be satisfied with the change.
Sources: 1 How Western Diet and Lifestyle Drive the Pandemic of Obesity and Civilization Diseases By W. Kopp / 2 UAB / 3 CDC / 4 Rush / 5 Diet and Dermatology: The Role of a Whole-food, Plant-based Diet in Preventing and Reversing Skin Aging-A Review By Solway J, McBride M, Haq F, Abdul W, Miller R. / 6 Healthline / 7 The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review By Medawar E, Huhn S, Villringer A, Veronica Witte A / 8 The Gut-Brain Axis: Influence of Microbiota on Mood and Mental Health By Appleton J
Meet our Contributor
Madison is an Eating Disorder Consoler in Los Angeles. She graduated from Emmanuel College and Northeastern University in Boston with a B.S. and M.S. and specializes in health science and nutrition. Throughout her career, she has aspired to impact the nutrition field in a positive way. With her background and interest in sustainability, health, and wellness, she aims to address limitations in health by making these top