Plant-based diet can improve life, longevity – and it’s tasty
By Kathleen Harte Simone
Eating a plant-based diet may extend your life expectancy, according to research released in February by PLOS Medicine, a peer-reviewed weekly medical journal. Starting a plant-based diet at age 80 could add three years to life. The earlier you start, the longer the potential benefit.
PLOS Medicine joins a long list of leading organizations that support the health advantages of a plant-based diet, including the American Institute for Cancer Research, American Heart Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and National Institutes of Health.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet consists almost exclusively of foods derived from plants – vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. However, it also leaves room for some meat and fish. Plant-based practitioners also typically steer clear of processed foods; refined grains, such as white bread and white rice; and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Vegetarians, on the other hand, do not eat any meat, fish and poultry. Vegans exclude all animal meat and any foods that are derived from animals, including eggs, milk, butter, cheese, mayonnaise and honey.
What are the major benefits?
“Plant-based diets have been shown to lower rates of diseases that are of particular importance to older adults, including heart disease and high blood pressure,” said Joanne Sullivan, Ph.D., a dietician and associate professor of nutrition at West Chester University. “Following a well-planned, plant-based diet as you age may help older adults achieve a more optimal level of health and improved quality of life by improving modifiable risk factors, such as abdominal obesity, lipids and inflammatory markers.”
A plant-based diet has also been shown to boost immunity and increase energy levels. That’s because plants have essential nutrients that are not contained in other foods. The vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants that are in plants help keep cells healthy and the body in balance.
Improved memory is another benefit of a plant-based diet. A 2021 Harvard study followed 77,000 middle-aged men and women for 20 years and found that people with the highest daily intakes of flavonoids – plant compounds with a variety of health benefits – were 19% less likely to report trouble with memory and thinking, compared with people who had the lowest daily flavonoid intakes.
Be mindful of nutrients
There is a misconception that meat is a necessary source of protein, vitamin B12 and calcium. On the contrary, protein rich, plant-based foods, such as seeds, nuts and legumes, are important staples in plant-based diets for older adults and can satisfy the body’s need for protein.
B12 can be found in plant-based meat substitutes (such as tofu), fortified cereals, soy and almond milk, shiitake mushrooms, and nutritional yeast. Sunlight is also a wonderful source of B12.
Calcium, which is essential for bone health, is not only found in dairy products. Leafy, dark green vegetables are also great sources of calcium. For example, a half-cup of cooked collard greens provides 175 mg of calcium. The same amount of cow’s milk has 150 mg of calcium.
“In general, nutrient intakes of older adults who eat a plant-based diet seem to be similar or better than those who do not follow a plant-based diet,” said Sullivan. “Calories typically decrease as we age, while other nutrients require an increased intake. For example, protein can be used less efficiently as we age. Therefore, older adults may require a slightly higher amount of protein. Additionally, older adults are at a greater risk of vitamin D deficiency, which may warrant supplementation if sun exposure is inadequate. The main goal for older adults is to choose nutrient-dense foods to help combat these issues.”
Making the transition
The advice of nutrition experts is to transition slowly to a plant-based diet. But don’t just fill your shopping cart with more of the same produce and pasta that you always buy. Pick up some new items to make a quick, healthy stir-fry. Bok choy, carrots, fresh peas and medium-firm tofu with low-sodium tamari (or soy sauce), served over brown rice noodles and topped with pine nuts is a delicious dinner that is plant-based. You may find that cooking and eating a plant-based diet never felt so good.
Plant-based food substitutions that you’ll love
Craving that meat taste? Swap out these plant-based substitutes in your favorite dishes:
Jackfruit – This trendy tropical tree fruit can be chunked or shredded, like chicken, to provide that desired meat texture. The flavor is neutral, so it will absorb the flavor of the seasonings used. It’s great in a stir-fry or casserole.
Plant-based sausages – Pre-seasoned varieties of no-meat sausage add an authentic taste to pasta sauces and jambalaya.
Black beans – This protein-packed ingredient adds rich flavor that compliments dishes calling for ground beef, like stuffed peppers.
Tofu – Made from dried soybeans, tofu is incredibly versatile. Try it pan-fried in a little olive oil, honey and soy sauce.
Tempeh – Tempeh is a soybean derivative that can be purchased seasoned or mixed with grains, like rice, wheat or barley. It’s ideal in sandwiches and salads. You can crumble and fry it, like ground meat, to use in tacos or chili.
Meatless burgers – You can now order your burger with a no-meat patty at most restaurants and fast-food chains. At the grocery store, some varieties are made to simulate the taste and texture of meat. If you want a completely different taste, try a garden burger patty that is made with vegetables, whole grains and legumes (like beans and lentils).
Kathleen Harte Simone is a Philadelphia-based journalist.