A growing body of evidence suggests that a plant-based diet — one
that focuses on vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins — is
the single best eating plan for your body and brain. It’s
found to be ideal for losing weight, staying lean, and even
keeping the mind sharp.
But a lot of people are doing it wrong.
For a recent
study published in the Journal of the American College of
Cardiology, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of
Public Health analyzed the eating habits of more than 200,000
health care workers over the course of more than 20 years. They
sought to find out whether there was any observable link between
their eating habits and their risk of developing coronary heart
Unsurprisingly, many of the health professionals stuck to a
plant-based, vegetarian diet. But among the vegetarians, eating
habits differed drastically — and in some cases appeared to be
less healthy than the diets of the non-vegetarians.
The researchers were able to identify three main categories of
vegetarian diets from their participants: a “healthy” plant-based
diet centered around whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; an
“unhealthy” plant-based diet that consisted mainly of refined
carbohydrates like white bread and pasta; and an “overall”
plant-based diet that was somewhere in between the two. At the
end of the study period, those who had kept closest to the
“healthy” plant-based diet were the least likely to suffer from
coronary heart disease. Those who veered more toward the
“unhealthy” plant-based plan were the most at risk.
“Not all plant foods are necessarily beneficial for health,” the
researchers wrote in their paper.
Still, plenty of research shows that when done correctly,
plant-based diets win out over every other eating plan.
The key that this study highlights is that it is important not to
fall back on refined foods like white bread and pasta. If you’re
thinking about switching to a plant-based diet, make sure you’re
eating plenty of whole grains like brown rice and whole grain
bread in addition to vegetables and fruits.
The best plant-based diet for the body and mind
Anselmo, a nutritionist and dietitian at New York’s Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, told Business Insider that she
frequently advises her clients — vegetarian or not — to ramp up
their intake of plant-based foods. She also tells them to cut
back on red meat and refined carbohydrates like white bread.
To keep your energy levels up and help you feel healthy in the
long term, your diet needs to feed more than your stomach,
Anselmo told Business Insider. It has to satiate your muscles,
which crave protein; your digestive system, which runs best with
fiber; and your tissues and bones, which work optimally when
they’re getting vitamins from food.
A healthy plant-based diet’s combination of whole grains, fruits,
vegetables, proteins, and fats accomplishes that goal.
This balance is also key to keeping you full after a meal and
energized throughout the day so you don’t feel the need to
Whitehead, a registered dietitian with a private practice in
the UK, told Business Insider.
“You need to have a balanced meal — things like whole grains,
fiber, and vegetables — in order to sustain your blood sugar.
Empty calories [like white bread or white rice] give a temporary
fix,” she said.
Healthy plant-based diets also appear to significantly reduce the risk of
certain diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and some
types of cancer. Recent
research also suggests that certain plant-based diets
could help protect the brain from some types of age-related
“When you look at overall dietary patterns it’s a more
whole-foods, plant-based diet that tends to be healthier in terms
of less disease risk,” Anselmo said. “People get caught up in
things like, ‘Well, how much iron or Vitamin C does this have?’
But the reality is that the whole foods are just going to
naturally be higher in those things.”