10 surprising ways a whole food, plant-based diet will benefit your health – South China Morning Post

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Unlike a standard vegan diet, a whole food, plant-based diet avoids processed, convenience and higher-fat foods like meat alternatives and vegan cheese, for instance.

A whole food, plant-based diet avoids processed meat alternavitves. Photo: Shutterstock
Consuming more plant foods is associated with a lower risk of chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease and can help with digestive health and weight management. But did you know that it can also help address other health-related concerns?

Here are 10 health benefits that may take you by surprise:

1. For men, lower risk of erectile dysfunction

Atherosclerosis, the thickening or hardening of the arteries, can reduce blood flow to the vessels around the penis and lead to difficulties with erections.

“Over 75 per cent of cardiovascular disease patients experience erectile dysfunction,” says Cyrus Luk, a dietitian and executive committee member of the Hong Kong Dietitians’ Association.

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“One notable feature of a plant-based diet is that it’s high in fibre, unsaturated fat and antioxidants while being low in saturated and trans fats. These elements can improve cardiovascular health and potentially alleviate impotence.”

A large study in 2013 found that increasing fruit and vegetable consumption by just one serving a day can lead to a 10 per cent reduction in the risk of developing erectile dysfunction.

The study showed those who ate more fruit and vegetables tended to have lower inflammation, indicated by lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood samples. Saturated fat intake has been linked to increased levels of this protein.

Women who eat a whole food, plant-based diet suffer less period pain. Photo: Shutterstock

2. For women, less period pain

According to Herby, a plant-based diet can help to reduce period pain through the increased intake of anti-inflammatory nutrients from fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
“Vegan and vegetarian diets are often associated with lower levels of inflammation, which is a main factor at play when it comes to period cramps,” she explains.

High levels of oestrogen are also strongly associated with period cramps, and a high- fibre and low-fat, plant-based diet can help to lower oestrogen levels.

Dr Anna Herby, a dietitian and nutrition education specialist, says following a whole food, plant-based diet means eating more whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables. Photo: courtesy of Dr Anna Herby

Herby says that fibre helps the body to get rid of extra oestrogen in stools, while reducing fat intake can help lower active oestrogen throughout the body.

3. Fewer hot flushes for menopausal women

“In a one-year study involving over 17,000 menopausal women, it was discovered that those who consumed higher quantities of fruit and vegetables experienced a noteworthy 20 per cent reduction in menopausal symptoms,” says Luk.

“Additionally, studies have indicated that the daily consumption of beans and legumes can delay the onset of menopause by approximately one year. This delay may be attributed to isoflavones, which are present in beans and have been associated with various health benefits.”

They are believed to improve cardiovascular issues, act as scavengers of free radicals that cause cellular damage, and reduce the risk of breast cancer.

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They possess oestrogen-mimicking properties that help to alleviate symptoms associated with oestrogen deficiency in women, Luk adds.

“By incorporating isoflavone-rich foods like soybeans into the diet, women may experience relief from menopausal symptoms and potentially gain protection against certain health conditions.”

4. Minimises arthritis and joint pain

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can cause inflammation or painful swelling, affecting different parts of the body, including the joints.

Plant-based diets have been associated with potential benefits for people with RA, according to Luk.

A diet rich in vegetables, fruit and whole grains provides essential nutrients that may help alleviate inflammation and reduce RA-related pain.

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Carrying extra weight stresses the joints and leads to increased inflammation, and excess fat in the body releases chemicals that promote inflammation.

Being overweight can make it more challenging to achieve remission in RA, says Luk.

Following a healthy, plant-based diet can lead to weight loss, even without calorie counting or intense exercise. The fibre in the diet also keeps one full for longer, with fewer calories, Herby adds.

Plant-based diets are rich in nutrients that play important roles in skin health. Photo: Shutterstock

5. Maintains healthy skin

Plant-based diets are rich in various nutrients, including vitamins A, C, E and K, folic acid, and other beneficial compounds, says Luk.

“These nutrients play important roles in skin health by aiding in skin tissue repair, moisturising cells, maintaining skin moisture, and reducing the appearance of dry lines.”

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Vitamin K helps with blood clotting and may reduce dark circles under the eyes. Folic acid aids in DNA synthesis and cell repair, supporting overall skin health.

6. Helps with hair and scalp health

Luk says that while there isn’t strong evidence directly linking a plant-based diet to hair health, the nutrients that improve skin health – including vitamins A, C, E, and K, and folic acid – may also benefit the hair.
Cyrus Luk is a Hong Kong-based dietitian. Photo: Cyrus Luk
These nutrients also support overall health, including the health of the scalp and hair follicles. Besides nutrition, proper hydration, stress management and good hair care practices are also important for maintaining healthy hair.

7. Boosts a low mood

A plant-based diet is helpful in improving mood because of its high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory content, says Herby.

A plant-based diet helps improve mood by reducing inflammation in the brain. Photo: Shutterstock

Reducing inflammation in the brain can be a way to significantly stabilise and improve mood. Also, a higher intake of healthy carbohydrates from eating more plants not only gives the brain steady fuel in the form of glucose; it also helps to increase levels of serotonin, a hormone that stabilises mood and boosts feelings of happiness and well-being.

8. Improves sleep quality

A study published in December 2023 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people consuming plant-based foods had a lower risk of insomnia.

These results suggest that a plant-based diet may help improve sleep quality.

Herby says that eating pistachio nuts is a natural way to increase melatonin levels in the brain, so eating even as few as two pistachios before bedtime can help you fall asleep.

9. Lowers medical costs

“Following a whole food plant-based diet can often address the root cause of chronic disease like diabetes and heart disease,” says Herby.

“In doing so, medication needs are often reduced, as are medical procedures and doctor visits. Since fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are so much cheaper than medications, overall medical costs can be lower if one adopts this way of eating.”

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10. Increases longevity

Because the root of many chronic diseases can be addressed through diet, following a plant-based diet can help lower one’s risk of living with disease or dying early from it, Herby says.

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