Want to Boost Immunity and Lower Your Risk of Disease? Go Plant-Based
One of the main reasons you embarked on a plant-based diet was likely the health benefits of eating this way. In fact, new research has found that eating a plant-based diet can help you boost your immunity and lower your risk of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
“When you eat more plant-based foods, you’re getting benefits purely from eating more plants,” says Torey Armul, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We know plants are some of the best sources of vitamins and minerals, and fiber--things that are all heart-healthy and body-healthy. The other factor that's happening is that people tend to eat less unhealthy food. So, you’re improving your diet by eating less of the worst foods and more of the best foods.”
1. Boost Your Immunity with Plant-Based Foods
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine lists plant-based foods high in vitamins as one way to boost your immune system right now. They suggest eating foods high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to fight off COVID-19 and other seasonal flu.
Studies have shown that fruits and vegetables provide nutrients—like beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E—that can boost immune function. Because many vegetables, fruits, and other plant-based foods are also rich in antioxidants, they help reduce oxidative stress.
Beta-Carotene: Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant that can reduce inflammation and boost immune function by increasing disease-fighting cells in the body, according to the PCRM. Excellent sources include sweet potatoes, carrots, and green leafy vegetables.
Vitamins C and E: Vitamins C and E are antioxidants that help to destroy free radicals and support the body’s natural immune response, the PCRM says. Sources of vitamin C include red peppers, oranges, strawberries, broccoli, mangoes, lemons, and other fruits and vegetables. Vitamin E sources include nuts, seeds, spinach, and broccoli.
Vitamin D: Research shows that vitamin D may reduce the risk for viral infections, including respiratory tract infections, so try to get yours from shiitake or portobello mushrooms.
Zinc: Zinc is a mineral that can help boost white blood cells, which defend against invaders. Since your body can't store zinc it's a good idea to get it daily. Sources include nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, beans, and lentils.
While a plant-based diet definitely improves your overall health now, there are also serious chronic diseases that a plant-based diet can protect you from, lowering your risk factor. Here a rundown of those diseases and why a plant-based diet is often the first line of defense.
Type 2 Diabetes
A recent article published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that sticking to a more plant-based diet was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Those subjects who ate healthy plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, as part of their diet had a 23% lower risk of type 2 diabetes than those who didn’t follow as much of a plant-based diet.
“Eating this way can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes because, first, you’re paying more attention to your diet,” says Armul. “When someone makes a change and starts reading food labels, planning ahead, and making their own meals, you tend to see some great health benefits.”
So how many plant-based foods should you aim for daily to lower your type 2 diabetes risk? “If I had to estimate, it looks like the majority of studies showed that around eight to 10 servings of plant foods—including beverages such as coffee and tea—seemed to demonstrate the strongest protective association,” says Frank Qian, who conducted the research published in JAMA Internal Medicine as a masters student in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
When you eat less meat or ditch it completely, you’re doing your ticker a number of favors, like reducing the risk of heart disease, obesity, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. That’s because a lot of meat is loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat, both of which can increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and create buildup and blockages in your arteries. But on top of lowering your meat consumption, eating a diet filled with high-quality plant foods is associated with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular diseases, according to research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The study saw a 19% decrease in cardiovascular-related mortality and up to 25% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease to start.
A plant-based diet can help your kidney health, and there are a few different reasons for that. Weight management in itself is very important for kidney disease, says Armul. Eating fewer animal-based foods reduces the acid-based load in your body, so you’re putting less stress on your kidneys. Plant-based foods also contain phytates, which bind phosphorus. Since you’re eating less processed foods, you’re not absorbing as much phosphorus, which tends to build up in the blood of those with kidney disease, damaging bones, and blood vessels, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
As of right now, eating patterns that show a reduction in the risk of cognitive diseases through a plant-based diet is association-based research (like this study published in Advances in Food and Nutrition Research), says Armul. Meaning, we can’t say eating this way definitely has that result. “I think these diets tend to be full of healthy omega-3 fats and we know that's brain-boosting food,” she says. “You’re getting the one-two punch because you’re consuming less processed foods, simple sugars, high sodium foods, and saturated fats which we know are not brain boosters. Then, you’re boosting the nutrients we know are good for healthy brains, memory, and acuity,” says Armul.
By eating more prebiotics (good gut bacteria) that are naturally found in plant-based diets, you tend to nourish the healthy bacteria in your gut, says Armul. “That strengthens your immune system and it helps with weight control. It even assists with things like blood sugar management and blood pressure,” she says.
When you boost the healthy gut flora you also crowd out the less healthy gut flora. “That means you’re reducing the less healthy bacteria that live in your digestive tract that can lead to chronic disease,” she says. Gut bacteria has been linked to chronic diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and even certain cancers, making a plant-based diet a long-lasting eating prescription to help protect your health today as well as into the future.