Nutrition researchers tend to paint a grim picture when the typical American diet comes under scrutiny.
And for good reason.
About 3 in 4 people don’t get enough vegetables and fruits, according to federal research. They also don’t eat enough whole grains and other nutrient-rich foods.
Perhaps least surprising of all: The typical American diet is overladen with added sugars, saturated fats and sodium.
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey report, “What we eat in America,” states it plainly: American diets are light on vegetables and fruits, heavy on salt, sugar, fat and protein from animal sources.
This standard American diet—researchers dub it the SAD diet—has long been implicated as a leading source of chronic disease.
Obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer are all associated with poor diet, said Kristi Artz, MD, medical director of lifestyle medicine at Spectrum Health.
The good news? The opposite is also true.
A whole foods, plant-based diet can impart significant health benefits.
Dr. Artz highlighted the Top 10 reasons to adopt a whole foods, plant-based diet:
Fight America’s No. 1 killer
Heart disease kills about 610,000 Americans each year.
A whole foods, plant-based diet can improve cardiovascular health by supplying plant-based proteins, with fiber and phytonutrients supplied from fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and whole grains, Dr. Artz said.
Research has also shown that coronary artery disease can be reversed when paired with intensive lifestyle changes, Dr. Artz said.
A whole foods, plant-based diet is at the center of those positive dietary changes.
“You can prevent and possibly reverse the devastating effects of cardiovascular disease by committing to this healthier diet,” she said.
Given the various ways we’re exposed to environmental, food and stress-related toxins, our bodies make cancerous cells all the time.
“The key is to create an internal environment that destroys these cells before they can grow and spread,” Dr. Artz said.
A plant’s phytochemical content—manifested visually by the characteristic colors of various fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices—serves as the plant’s natural defense system.
We benefit from this when we consume these plant-based foods, Dr. Artz said. By eating a wide array of colorful plants, our bodies can become more resistant to cancer.
Some examples: Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and kale contain the cancer-fighting compound sulforaphane, anthocyanin-rich berries are widely recognized for their disease-fighting characteristics and white button mushrooms may help ward off breast cancer.
Chronic disease is a state of chronic inflammation—a dysfunction in our natural defense system, Dr. Artz said.
When our bodies function correctly, inflammation helps with healing. With the inflammation process doesn’t stop, however, it leads to serious damage.
Take diabetes: The inflammation becomes widespread, damaging the arteries in the eyes and leading to eventual blindness, Dr. Artz said. The kidneys can fail, too, while damage to nerves in the feet leads to neuropathy.
“Animal-derived protein and fat in our diets, in the form of dairy products and meats, is a major contributor to inflammation causing widespread damage,” Dr. Artz said.
On the other hand, whole, plant-based foods have significant anti-inflammatory effects that can lead to healing, she said.
Slay the flu
Together, flu and pneumonia account for the eighth-leading cause of death in the U.S., with elderly persons and infants facing the greatest risk.
Vaccinations are typically effective, but there’s always a risk they’ll be ineffective against that year’s prevalent flu strain.
A diet with at least five to six servings of fruits and vegetables a day—as opposed to one or two servings—will promote better immune response to pneumonia vaccination in elderly individuals, Dr. Artz said.
If you follow a whole foods, plant-based diet, half a dozen servings of fruits and vegetables is realistic.
“It will give you a real advantage during cold and flu season,” Dr. Artz said.
Fad diets sometimes like to assure lofty weight loss achievements without a need to intentionally restrict calories. But monitoring food intake is an inevitable part of the process.
The benefit of a whole foods, plant-based diet—in terms of weight loss and maintenance—comes from the fact most plants are nutrient-dense, high in fiber and naturally low in calories, Dr. Artz said.
To lose weight naturally, you need to eat natural, healthy foods.
“Eating can again become more enjoyable, intuitive and mindful rather than a constant battle against calories,” Dr. Artz said.
Boost your mood
With the long, bleak days of winter just around the bend, wouldn’t it be nice to approach each day with vitality and cheer? A whole foods, plant-based diet can help you achieve this, Dr. Artz said.
Beyond their health-promoting phytochemical properties, plants are also useful for what they lack—namely, inflammatory properties.
Your mood improves when your brain isn’t exposed to the harmful ingredients found in many processed and packaged foods. Even meat, eggs and poultry can produce inflammatory effects, according to Dr. Artz.
She referenced a 2015 study of a corporate workplace, which found a plant-based diet improved mood and lessened anxiety in the corporate setting. It also helped increase worker productivity.
If you’re deficient in restful sleep, your mood, productivity and immunity falters, Dr. Artz said.
Melatonin is a hormone secreted from the brain’s pineal gland. These hormone levels rise in the evening, which causes us to feel sleepy.
As we age, melatonin production can wind down. This is why older people often experience insomnia, Dr. Artz said.
Plant foods naturally contain melatonin that crosses from the gastrointestinal tract into the brain. Foods such as raspberries, almonds and goji berries contain potent amounts of melatonin, which can help you achieve a restful night of sleep, Dr. Artz said.
Dr. Artz said the 2018 documentary “The Game Changers” provides a compelling argument for a whole foods, plant-based diet.
Several plant-based athletes featured in the documentary discussed their reasons for avoiding animal-based products. Ethics motivated some. Others said their athletic performance improved after they gave up meat and dairy.
The documentary put to rest the common misconception of the feared protein deficiency—even for the endurance athlete, Dr. Artz said.
A whole foods, plants-based diet can reduce inflammation and help athletes recover faster after stress or exercise.
“A varied diet of this sort can meet all the dietary needs—including protein goals—for weekend warriors and endurance athletes alike,” Dr. Artz said.
Bolster gut health
Your bowel habits are often a sign of your overall health.
The optimal number of daily bowel movements may be up for debate, although historical studies suggest two to three per day is quite normal.
Studies have shown that those following a whole foods, plant-based diet have more frequent formed bowel movements than omnivores, Dr. Artz said.
More important than the number of bowel movements, perhaps, is the health of gut bacteria lining the more than 3,000 square feet of your intestines, Dr. Artz said.
“While probiotics are popular supplements to increase the number of good bacteria in our gut, what if we made an effort to properly feed our healthy gut bacteria that already live there?” she said.
Prebiotics—dietary fiber obtained from plant foods—are the preferred fuel source for a healthy gut microbiome.
Uplift the planet
“Dairy, eggs, meat and fish from factory-raised sources come at a significant cost to the environment and our health,” Dr. Artz said.
She supplied this bit of data: Nearly 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of hamburger meat, as compared to less than 30 gallons for 1 pound of tomatoes.
“In addition, our personal health suffers as a result of significant exposure to antibiotics and hormones when we consume animal products from feedlot factory sources,” Dr. Artz said.
Purchasing food from local farmers markets and growing our own vegetables helps connect us to our food production.
“This in turn helps us to be more thoughtful about our personal health and the health of our planet,” she said.