Dietitians and food scientists have talked for decades about the benefits of eating more plant-based foods while reducing meat intake. Although plant-based diets used to be the preference of the minority, they are now much more part of the mainstream.
This is partly because the advantages of a plant-based diet have been well researched and healthcare practitioners are more frequently recommending this pattern of eating due to the associated health benefits.
Going plant-based is not so much a diet as a general approach to eating. It’s all about eating more plant-based foods and fewer animal-based ones.
What is a plant-based diet
A plant-based diet predominantly consists of whole, minimally processed plant foods such as fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
A strict plant-based diet might mean going vegetarian or vegan, and excluding all meat and animal products, but the newer ‘flexitarian’ (flexible vegetarian) option is growing in popularity as it provides the best of both worlds. Followers get the benefits of a plant-based diet without completely cutting out meat and other animal products.
Why go for plant-based
Plant-based diets may still not be for everyone, but there’s little doubt most people could benefit from increasing the proportion of plant foods on their plates.
From a health point-of-view, we don’t need to exclude all animal products, focussing on eating a variety of plant-based foods and reducing processed and refined foods is the key. You don’t need to make major changes to benefit from plant-based foods – it’s the small and sustainable changes that are most effective in the long run.
This might mean swapping the usual refined breakfast cereal for oats, swapping out meat from your evening meal for legumes or tofu twice a week, including a salad, or choosing fruit and nuts as a snack rather than something that’s processed.
Is plant-based eating a healthy option
The flexitarian diet closely reflects the recommendations in our Australian national dietary guidelines which encourage a diet rich in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes with some healthy fats and moderate amounts of meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy, with minimal amounts of highly processed and refined foods.
Plant-based eating is associated with reduced body weight and reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers when compared to an omnivorous diet (a diet including both plant foods and animal products).
Benefits of a plant-based diet, from the scientific literature:
- Reduced type 2 diabetes: Research shows a plant-based diet has benefits for avoiding type 2 diabetes, substantially reducing the risk. This effect is most likely due to the lack of saturated fats which raise cholesterol levels.
- Reduced blood pressure: High blood pressure can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, but US research shows a plant-based diet can reduce blood pressure and the risk of such diseases by 34 per cent.
- Reduced cholesterol: High cholesterol can lead to heart attack, stroke or heart disease, but changing to a primarily plant-based diet can lower (bad) LDL cholesterol by up to 25 per cent according to a review of 27 published studies.
- Healthier heart: Cutting back on meat and loading up on plant-based foods will help your heart because meat contains saturated fat which can cause heart issues. One recent study found the risk of dying of heart disease could be reduced by up to 31 per cent.
- Reduced risk of Stroke: People with the highest intake of fruit and vegetables have a 21 per cent lower risk of stroke than those with the lowest intake.
- Reduced cancer risk: The best way to increase your intake of cancer-protective nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals is with a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, nuts, seeds and some animal foods, according to US research.
- Weight reduction: Being overweight is recognised as a contributing factor for a wide range of diseases. People on a plant-based diet tend to weigh less, with research showing a substantial difference in Body Mass Index (BMI) between non-meat eaters and meat eaters.
- Longer life: Research shows a healthy plant-based diet can lower the risk of all causes of death by 25 per cent.
- Improved brain power: Plant-based diets may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and reduce onset of dementia and cognitive issues by 13 per cent, likely due to high levels of polyphenols in fruit and vegetables.
Combining plant-based with low GI
Research also tells us we should ensure our regular diet includes as many low GI foods as possible to help prevent the most common diseases of affluence, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
There are many reasons for following a low GI diet, and whether you’re looking to improve your general health or prevent or manage a specific health condition, it’s likely a low GI diet can help.
Just as with increasing plant-based foods, including more low GI choices in your diet doesn’t require a dramatic change. It can be as simple as swapping just one high GI food for a low GI food at every meal.
To see how easy it can be, try the simple Swap It Tool on our GI Foundation website, which makes it easy to switch everyday foods from a high to low GI option.
Health benefits of a low GI diet
The science shows a low GI diet reduces the risk of developing significant health problems, and is a simple and effective way to:
- Manage weight by controlling appetite and delaying hunger
- Fuel the body for sustained energy
- Improve pregnancy outcomes
- Reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease
- Improve concentration
- Increase physical performance by extending endurance
- Reduce breast cancer risk
- Manage Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
- Decrease the risk of common diabetic complications
- Feel fuller for longer
- Benefit eye health and prevent age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness
- Reduce acne
How to know if a food is low GI
The GI Symbol is your guarantee that the GI value has been tested by an accredited laboratory and is accurate. Foods that carry the GI Symbol have been assessed against a range of strict nutrient criteria, in line with international dietary guidelines, confirming them among the healthiest choices in their category. Check out the categories on our GI Symbol Products page.