When you consider Bill Clinton’s svelte physique post-heart surgery and Paul McCartney’s on-stage energy, it may seem that vegetarianism is a fountain of youth. And a strong body of research supports the idea that a plant-based diet can boost your health, decreasing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, and helping you stay at a healthy weight. It can even lengthen your life, according to a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine that tracked more than 70,000 people.
But for many, life without steak, barbecued chicken, or pork tacos doesn’t sound so appealing. Fortunately, you don’t have to make an either/or choice. “Just making a shift to a more plant-based diet can offer significant health benefits,” says Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Research shows that flexitarians—those who make plant foods the star of their diet, with meat, fish, dairy, and eggs playing a supporting role—are healthier than frequent meat eaters in categories such as colon cancer and heart-disease risk, and overall mortality.
The Power of Plants
The main advantages of a plant-based diet seem to be more related to the foods you’re eating lots of (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts) rather than those you’re eating less of (meat).
“When you base your meals on plant foods, you’re packing your diet with the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats that most Americans don’t get enough of,” says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., editor of Environmental Nutrition. Plant-based diets are also full of phytochemicals, compounds that help keep many of your body’s systems running smoothly. For instance, the anthocyanins in berries help protect vision; carotenoids in carrots and cantaloupe, and the isothiocyanates in brussels sprouts neutralize the free radicals that cause cell damage; and flavonoids in apples help control inflammation.
Plant-Based Diet Perks
How much meat can you eat and still get the benefits of a veggie diet? There’s not enough research to give a precise amount. “Diet is a continuum,” says Robert Ostfeld, M.D., director of Preventive Cardiology and founder and director of the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “But patients who more fully embrace a whole foods, plant-based diet have the best outcomes.”
Still, research shows that eschewing meat all of the time isn’t necessary. In one recent preliminary study of more than 450,000 adults, those who followed a plant-based diet that was 70 percent plants had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease or stroke than those whose diets centered on meat and dairy. A Harvard study that tracked more than 120,000 people for 30 years found that those who ate the most red meat tended to die younger during the study period but that swapping just one daily serving of beef for nuts could cut the risk of dying early by as much as 19 percent.
One possible reason for those benefits is that a plant-based diet can improve blood lipid levels. Making the change from a typical American diet to a plant based (including some meat) or vegetarian one was associated with a 10 to 15 percent decrease in total and LDL “bad” cholesterol, according to a review of 27 studies in the American Journal of Cardiology. Shifting to a vegan diet led to even more dramatic change.
A “less meat, more plants” style of eating can also help improve the quality of your life. In addition, it’s associated with higher levels of short-chain fatty acids in the gut, and research suggests that it lowers the risk of heart disease, inflammatory diseases, and type 2 diabetes.
A Mediterranean-style diet, based on produce, legumes, grains, and healthy oils, with small amounts of fish and meat, is connected with better brain health in older adults, according to a study in the journal Neurology. Those who favored fruits and vegetables along with some fish had less brain shrinkage—linked with a reduced risk of cognitive decline—than those who ate more meat. Eating no more than 3.5 ounces of meat daily may help prevent the loss of brain cells equivalent to about three or four years of aging, researchers say.
But can changing your diet after age 50 still make a difference? Absolutely, according to experts. “It’s never too early or too late to embrace a healthier lifestyle,” Ostfeld says. “The benefits come quickly and continue to accrue with time.” In one study, women in that age group who ate a mostly plant diet were 34 percent more likely to be free of chronic diseases, like type 2 diabetesand heart disease, 15 years later than women whose diets included more meat.
How to Make the Switch
Any step you take will help, but the more plants and fewer animal foods, the better. Try these easy tips to help you design a plant-based diet:
- Up your vegetable and fruit intake. Even if you don’t actively cut back on meat at first, adding more produce will help you develop a taste for plant foods and transition to a higher-fiber diet. “I recommend including vegetables at just about every meal and snack, even breakfast,” Palmer says. “Try sliced radishes on your toast or have a side of baked tomato halves.”
- Redesign your plate. Fill at least half of your plate with produce, grains, or beans, and downsize your meat serving. Think of a stir-fry heavy on the veggies and grains with thinly sliced strips of beef rather than a big steak with a spear of broccoli. Swap in chopped mushrooms or tofu for half of the ground meat you’d normally use in meatloaf, tacos, chili, or pasta sauce. Or try veggie-based dishes like burritos.
- Pick the healthiest meats. You might want to focus first on decreasing the amount of processed meat you eat—bacon, deli meats, hot dogs, and sausage. A Harvard study linked a daily serving equal to one hot dog or two slices of bacon to an increased risk of early death from heart disease and cancer. Recently, a group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the World Health Organization categorized that type of meat as “carcinogenic to humans.” Each 1.8 ounces of processed meat eaten daily raises the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, their report says. Red meat also has been associated with heart disease and cancer risk, but the evidence is less clear. When you do eat red meat, it’s best to stick to small amounts and choose lean cuts, such as pork tenderloin and top sirloin steak. And try to eat fatty fish such as salmon, which is high in inflammation-busting omega-3 fatty acids.
- Find your semi-veg style. Plant-based meals once every seven days in the style of Meatless Monday—a campaign that encourages people to start each week with a day of vegetarian eating—are a great way to begin. You can try replacing your meat ounce-for-ounce with a faux meat such as tempeh or tofu, Palmer says. More restrictive but also forgiving is the VB6 approach, where you eat vegan—no meat, fish, dairy, or eggs—before 6 p.m. You’re free to have meat, fish, eggs, or dairy at dinner.
A Great Plant-Based Day
So you’re sold on the idea of shifting to a more vegetarian diet. If only you knew what to eat. Here’s a day’s worth of completely plant-based meals to mix into your normal routine, putting you on the road to becoming a flexitarian.
Breakfast Avocado toast: 2 slices whole-grain bread, mashed avocado, red-pepper flakes, sea salt; coffee with coconut-milk creamer.
Lunch Quinoa tabbouleh with chickpeas: Cooked quinoa, chopped tomatoes, chopped cucumber, chopped parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, black olives, garbanzo beans.
Snack 1 fruit-and-nuts bar (200 or fewer calories), such as Kind Plus Cranberry Almond, which earned top scores in Consumer Reports’ snack bar tests.
Dinner Black-bean tacos: Corn tortillas, black beans, roasted cauliflower, jarred corn salsa, pico de gallo, cumin, salad greens.
Dessert Frozen banana “ice cream:” Blend a frozen banana in a blender with a touch of almond milk until it resembles soft serve, topped with chopped walnuts.