Plants as Health Heroes

Plants as Health Heroes

Add color and nutrients to your plate with whole veggies and fruits

There’s no doubt that what you eat and drink on a regular basis affects your health. When it comes to keeping you healthy, plant foods shine as superheroes. 

Research shows that eating more plant foods — such as whole vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, tea, coffee, and cacao powder — can help lower your risk for obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Substituting just 3% of your calories from animal to plant proteins is linked to a lower risk of death from all causes and, in particular, cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in 2016 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“There are thousands of phytonutrients or healthy compounds found in plant foods, beyond the basic vitamins and minerals,” says Chicago dietitian DJ Blatner, RDN, author of The Flexitarian Diet and The Superfood Swap. Inherent in the skins, membranes, and flesh of produce is a powerful defense arsenal of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory chemicals.

“Each plant food has a different mix of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients,” Blatner says. “It’s so important to have a variety in your diet to make sure you are getting a diverse mix of those protective, magical compounds.”

plant foods sidebar F20 Health benefits

The benefits of plant foods extend to microbes in our gut, which play a huge role in warding off diseases and maintaining health. Eating a wide array of plants may help establish a diverse microbiome that is better equipped to handle viruses and other pathogenic invaders.

Research from the American Gut Project shows that participants who ate more than 30 types of plants per week had a greater microbial diversity compared to those who consumed 10 or fewer plants per week. The researchers theorized that various types of plant fibers and starches feed friendly bacteria in the gut, creating a more diverse microbiome.

Eating a wide variety of plants gives you access to a broader range of nutrients, says Geeta Maker-Clark, MD, director of integrative nutrition and advocacy at NorthShore University HealthSystem. “The key is variety, diversity, and many colors, which correspond to many different phytonutrients,” she says.

To include more plants in your diet, Maker-Clark recommends adding vegetables and fruits to smoothies, soups, or sauces; using veggie noodles in place of grain-based pasta; using vegetable-based chips and cauliflower rice; and upgrading snack and dessert choices to include more colors. 

Whole foods

In the Mediterranean diet, a plethora of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and legumes, as well as nuts, seeds, and olive oil, take center stage. This eating pattern has long been recognized in the prevention of heart disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Additionally, the Mediterranean diet — along with the DASH and MIND diets that also emphasize plants — is associated with less cognitive decline and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published in 2019 in Advances in Nutrition.

Natural compounds in plants can help conquer inflammation, Maker-Clark explains. “Phytonutrients [affect] normal body functions and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. They can enhance immunity and repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins.”

Whole plant foods can help with weight management, too. In one study, participants who ate whole plant foods versus refined, less-healthful plant foods gained less weight over the course of the study, researchers reported in 2019 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Yet, eliminating meat doesn’t automatically make all vegan and vegetarian options healthy. Highly processed, refined bread, cakes, cookies, and candy, along with soft drinks and fried foods, come with their own health detriments. Less-healthy plant foods can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a 2019 study in Current Atherosclerosis Reports.

Adding plant foods

To harness the power of plants, make it easy to incorporate them into your daily food plan.

“The most important thing is to keep plant food stocked and ready to use,” Blatner says. “It’s so much easier to add spinach to scrambled eggs, veggie sticks to lunch, fruits to snack time, and grilled broccoli to dinner when it’s all cut, cleaned, and ready to go.”

Think about color, taste, and aroma when choosing plant foods. “Go for red peppers and tomatoes, orange carrots and sweet potatoes, yellow squash, green kale and spinach, blueberries, purple cabbage and grapes, spicy ginger and cayenne, and smelly garlic and onions,” Blatner suggests.

Getting plants from a variety of whole plant food sources appears to be key to reaping the best rewards for health and longevity.

Originally published in the Fall 2020/Winter 2021 print issue.