Even though vegetarians and vegans are typically thought of as being healthier, there’s lots of benefits to eating good-quality meat. It’s very high in protein, and meat and fish contains lots of healthy fats and micronutrients, which are essential for many of the body’s key functions.
However, with vegetarianism, veganism and a new part-time vegetarian movement called “flexitarianism” on the rise, people are increasingly looking at the health benefits of a plant-based diet. A roundup of several new scientific studies shows a growing number of unexpected benefits found in plant-based diets.
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To start with, one study looking at Americans who participated in the 2011-2014 waves of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (opens in new tab) studied those who adhered to an all-plant diet. It was found those participants performed better in cognitive tests than meat-eaters, finding an increased correlation between vegetarianism and better memory.
Another study from Canada (opens in new tab) found low amounts of pulses, nuts, fruit and vegetables in a diet were directly linked to how effectively the participants scored in tests measuring verbal fluency. It seems the greater proportion of fruit and vegetables in your diet, the better your memory and associated verbal skills are, as you are able to recall and use difficult words with increased frequency.
Other studies found plant-based foods’ effect on memory led to a decreased risk of dementia in later life.
What about heart health? A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (opens in new tab) analysed 416,104 men and women in the US, finding higher plant protein intake was associated with a reduction in risk of overall and cardiovascular disease mortality: an 11% lower risk in men and 12% lower risk in women.
Other studies discovered plant-based diets have a real impact on heart anatomy, showing positive improvements after switching to vegetarianism.
Finally, we look at kidney health, and the body’s ability to flush harmful substances out of the body. A plant-dominant, low-protein diet was found by researchers from the journal Nutrients (opens in new tab) to “favorable alterations in the gut microbiome”, limiting the production of harmful substances and further reducing cardiovascular risk.
When taken together, these benefits are undeniably impressive, and we could all do with getting more fruit and vegetables into our diet. However, you don’t have to cut out meat entirely to reap the benefits of eating more fruits and veggies.
“Flexitarianism” is a relatively new term, referring to a diet philosophy of eating vegetable-based dishes only some of the time. The idea is to have meat-free days of the week in which you cook only vegetarian meals, or you abandon processed meat like bacon and sausages in favour of the good stuff, like high-quality chicken breast and steak.
Although these meats are more expensive, if you’re eating less meat overall as a result of your new flexitarian regime, it will come out as the same price per meal (with a bit of careful budgeting).
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.
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