Can Substituting Plant-Based Foods into Your Diet Improve Your Overall Health?

substituting to plant based

Everyone knows eating more fruits and vegetables is crucial to living a healthy life. But what if you kept up with eating your current diet of vegetables and substituted some of your meat for plant-based alternatives?

While meat itself has its benefits (like being a strong source of protein), it also poses an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and high blood pressure according to the American Heart Association. On top of this, processed meats can come with even more downsides. Skinless chicken and fish are two of the healthiest options.  

Can substituting meat for plant-based foods provide more benefits than downsides? Let’s take a look!

Do you have to be a Vegetarian?

Short answer – no. Substituting only some meats out of your diet can be a meaningful shift, even if you continue to eat them occasionally. This is sometimes called “plant-forward” cooking where you focus on plant-based foods, but do not strictly limit yourself to them.

Like vegetarians, people who participate in “plant-forward” cooking do eat eggs and dairy products. For comparison, a vegan diet is one without any animal products (like eggs).

Can you make the change at any age?

Studies have examined the benefits of plant-based foods across age groups and found that a decreased risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease is possible regardless of when you decide to start shifting your diet. Of course the sooner you start, the more impactful of benefits will be.

What are the long-term benefits of plant-based foods?

The University of Minnesota completed a study from 1985 to 2016 that tracked nearly 5000 participants’ diets and the impact it had on their lab results and other metrics like height and weight. Participants were from a mix of ethnicities and genders. They were not instructed to eat a specific diet nor were their lab results discussed with them at each follow-up.

This created a realistic assessment of the natural diets people selected and the impact it had on their overall health during the over 30 year study (at the start of the study participants were between the age of 18 and 30 years old).

Though results were not discussed with patients, the researchers did “score” the diets that participants reported eating. The more points participants scored, the healthier the diet was with fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts being among the highest-scoring foods. By comparison, fried potatoes, high-fat red meats, salty snacks, and soft drinks were among the lowest-scoring foods.

Of the 4946 people who participated in the study, 289 of them developed cardiovascular disease throughout the study. Participants whose diets were filled with plant-based foods (scoring in the top 20 of study participants) were 52% less likely to be among the participants who developed cardiovascular disease. (more information on this study)

This is just one of the many studies completed on the benefits of plant-based diets, but it is a particularly interesting one due to its extended duration.

Studies have also connected substituting in plant-based foods to a decreased risk of diabetes, cancer, stroke, helping you lose weight, and live a longer life.

How can I select meat-free alternatives?

The increased interest in vegetarian and vegan food products in the US has given rise to an entire industry of meat-free alternatives. It goes far beyond just veggie burgers.

Traditionally meat products like chicken wings and meatballs now have alternatives that often have unique texture and taste, but regardless are healthier and may taste good in their own right. Many of these alternative products make use of potatoes, cauliflower, mushrooms, and tofu.

The next time you are in the grocery store, take a look at the vegetarian section for yourself. You may find something to try as an alternative to a meat product you were otherwise in the store to pick up!