Plant Based Diets – Healthy Protein Benefits Or Risky Side Effects?


What we are looking at here is the breakdown of the updates surrounding plant based diets. It has been a big year for diets focused on reducing meat and dairy. It isn’t just awareness of the health benefits of cutting down on animal products.

The jump in healthcare costs are affecting almost all age groups and many are looking into taking their health into their own hands. However, we are still seeing a rise in heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

All of these are associated with an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. Physicians have taken the proactive approach and started promoting overall health improvement to the general public. The concept is simple, adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Unfortunately for the bacon enthusiasts of 2016, healthy eating is best achieved by moving towards plant-based meals. This does mean putting options of diary, eggs and meat as unfavorable in comparison to alternate options.

Another good step in the right direction is eradicating processed foods and refined sugars.

A healthy diet isn’t the only benefit though. Physicians are fighting to show that plant based diet options can be cost effective as well. They argue that this diet change can be a big step in preventing a number of major health problems.

The claim is that plant based diets can reduce blood pressure, mass body index, and cholesterol levels. We haven’t reached the bottom line yet.

Because in taking these steps yourself, you reduce your dependency on a number of pharmaceutical needs to control all of these developing issues.

Easing up on the number of medications you’re taking is understood to do much less damage to your body. Physicians are identifying the need to recommend plant based diets.

Not only to patients who are experiencing symptoms or at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, obesity or high blood pressure. They are recommending it to completely healthy patients too.

What Is Plant Based Protein?

A number of documentaries regarding plant-based diets and the risks of sticking to processed foods have come out in the past few years.

Notably, Forks Over Knives and an HBO documentary called The Weight of the Nation have left viewers with a greater understanding of dietary needs. Currently the United States is in a state that is steadily increasing its rate of Obesity.

Some areas suggest a static climb of a 5% increase in the obesity rate per year. Lifestyle and diet choices affect all areas of life. Health, quality of life, and mental health are all affected by a poor diet.

The apparent risk of sustaining a poor diet is obesity. Followed closely with diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. Unfortunately it wasn’t until very recently that the plant based diet became a constant recommendation.

A variety of other diets made their way through doctor’s offices all the while combating unhealthy fad diets.

Using a plant-based diet as front line combat for some of these diseases is still not being stressed enough.

The Permanente Journal notes that this is likely due to low patient awareness, and low levels of education regarding plant based diets in the general public.

However, we find ourselves observing the general public becoming more and more accepting of plant-based diets. It has become easier to find restaurants with alternative menus, or menus that have significantly cut processed foods.

Steps are being taken in the right direction, but the importance of distributing quality information hasn’t dropped.

One of the many free resources available from the National Dietary Guidelines is which shows a breakdown of what a healthy plate should look like.

It shows a well rounded suggested diet by the plate rather than in measureable portions. This guideline offers half a plate of vegetables or fruits.

The remainder of the plate is broken down to a quarter section for whole grains or a starchy food option and a quarter left to a lean protein.

We are taking an in-depth look at what evidence is available to support this construct of diet as a recommendation.

Plant Based Protein User

A man suffering of hypertension and 63 years of age informed his physician he was experiencing muscle cramps, nausea and fatigue. This was his primary physician who was familiar with his patient.

A blood drawn glucose test showed a result of 524 mg/dL. His blood pressure registered at 132/66 mmHg. Finally, his BMI was 25 kg/m2. On top of it all, this man was already on a variety of medications to treat, well, a variety of things.

His prescription list looked to be along these lines:

· Hydrochlorothiazide – 50 mg daily
· Lisinopril – 40 mg daily
· Atorvastatin – 20 mg daily
· Amlodipine – 5 mg daily.

After he voiced his complaints of cramps, fatigue and nausea his doctor prescribed the following:

· Glipizide – 5 mg daily
· Metformin – 1000 mg twice, daily
· Neutral Protamine Hagedom Insulin – 10 units.

Then, his physician took another step. He educated this man on the benefits of a plant based diet focused on low sodium. Removing all animal based or derived products and processed sugars.

Additionally, explaining the need to significantly reduce bread and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. In exchange for all he was giving up, he could eat an unlimited amount of vegetables that were not starch based.

Vegetables, beans and legumes were all access and he could intake up to 2 ounces of seeds or nut options. This physician wasn’t done, he informed his patient, he needed to be exercising twice daily, for about fifteen minutes each time.

The 63 year old man began coming into his Care Clinic once a month. Four months of this presented a drastic improvement in the man’s multiple conditions. Observations showed his blood pressure dropped down to 125/60.

Cholesterol levels decreased to 138 mg/dL. He was removed from the following medications:

· Amlodipine
· Hydrochlorothiazide
· Glipizide
· Neutral Protamine Hagedom Insulin

He was left with his Lisinopril decreasing gradually until it reached 5 mg a day and Metformin maintaining at 1000 mg twice daily. The Metformin was the only requirement to control his diabetes.

This was a turn around. Now, don’t lose track that this was a four month journey for our 63 year old man. However, we can imagine that his quality of life improved.

We can deduce from the information above that the adjustments to his medications in conjunction with a plant based diet and exercise had an impact on his health directly.

Plant Based Protein Diets

The real life example we looked at just now is one example of the effect these changes can provide. Biometric effects on blood pressure and lipid profiles can be tracked to plant-based diets.

The most dramatic transition for our 63 year old man’s case is his blood pressure changing so much while also reducing his medication to aid its reduction. This, the physician correlated to the low sodium focus of the recommended plant based diet.

This change is extreme. To add to the oddities of what would, at first blush appear to be normal, the patient did not experience express weight loss. The patient wasn’t obese and the patient’s weight itself was not the problem.

It was also not the root cause of the multiple problems he was experiencing. The diet was. So, how did this happen?

Well, reverting to our source with The Permanente Journal, this was achieved through maximizing intake of plant foods that are known to be nutrient dense.

Also, significantly reducing the consumption of any processed food, and animal products, as well as oils. What this naturally leads us to is non-starchy vegetables either eaten raw or served cooked. These also tend to be generally lower in fat.

The quick list of go to items that fall into this category are:

· Lentils
· Soy beans
· Peas
· Beans
· Fruits
· Vegetables
· And … seeds and nuts in smaller quantities.

Where it seems to get sticky for physicians is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plant-based diet for them to recommend. Opinions fluctuate from physician to physician and this can be related to what their patient needs.

Some, like our physician above, are strict on removing animal products. However, other physicians may recommend skim milk and egg whites.

Egg whites are known through the general public as a “healthy option” but this is where is comes down to educating the public. It depends on the disease and whether the intention is prevention or reversal.

The Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute’s Director of Cardiovascular Prevention and Reversal encourages avoidance of all animal derived products. He extends this to include plant-based, high protein items like soybeans and nuts.

Patients need to know and understand what they are at risk for, what is possible to reverse and what can be done to increase their quality of life even when facing life-long issues such as diabetes.

These are all small things to nitpick at though when the bigger picture is so present. Minor variations of essentially the same diet offer noticeable health improvements.

Utilizing vegetarian or vegan concepts with the focus remaining on health benefits in our daily lives. It is important to include in education on this topic however, as The Permanente Journal pointed out, not all vegetarian or vegan diets are healthy.

The importance of understanding your goals and having a diet tailored to your health needs cannot be set aside.

Very quickly we will break down common diets, or their common understandings of diets that remove or place limits on animal derived products.

  • Vegan: the variation of vegetarian that is most restrictive. This diet completely removes all animal products and by products. No beef, pork, poultry, seafood, eggs, or diary.
  • Raw Foods Vegan: just the same as vegan but, you guessed it, they don’t cook their veggies.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: removes all meat, including seafood and poultry, eggs and allows for milk products.
  • Ovo-vegetarian: permits eggs, but removes all other animal products.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: the best of Lacto and Ovo worlds. Permits egg and diary.
  • Mediterranean: Permits small amounts of chicken, eggs, dairy and a very small allowance of red meat.

Whole-foods, low-fat, plant-based: this suggests that all plant foods be eaten “in their whole form” and to gain the most benefits to exclude all animal products along with total fat.

Plant Based Protein Benefits Broken Down

This is what we were building to right? What can we do, to benefit? What steps do we have to take? Now after some background education on the topic, aren’t all of these different diseases going to have different diet recommendations?

That’s the goal. Reviewing a variety of information available to show that a plant based diet has had an indisputable effect for each of these issues that are real risks to people who don’t sustain healthy lifestyles.

These are all primed around vegan, vegetarian and Mediterranean based diets. The material here is intended to provide information for self-education on how diets may affect the body in terms of prevention and reversal.

Benefits For The Obese And Overweight

The immediate argument of any diet is the weight loss. The intention of focused plant-based diets is not purely weight loss.

However, those diagnosed as obese or at risk of becoming obese have seen that veganism and vegetarian diets are extremely effective.

In addition to reversal, or prevention of obesity, the benefits of these diets extend into cardiovascular health and reduction of risk of diabetes. It has been identified that about one pound per week is seen when switching to a strict vegetarian diet.

Part of this argument is that the weight loss is not contingent upon exercise regimens. That a vegan or vegetarian diet allows for calories to burn more freely following meals as the body is not functioning to process hard to digest food or store fat.

The case for vegetarian diets continues as they have been shown to be easier to manage weight with and offering higher nutritional value for the volume of food consumed.

It has become general knowledge or public association of vegetarianism with healthy or lower weight people. The nutrient dense base of vegetarianism and veganism allows the dieter to maintain not just their weight but also a diet quality.

Showing raised intake of the following: potassium, thiamine, magnesium, iron, riboflavin, and folate. These are all things we are constantly missing out on with meat heavy diets.

The Permanente Journal acknowledges the results of a study based purely on data connection between consuming meat and being obese. Through in depth analysis, there was a distinct connection between the two.

This data was collected over a five year span throughout the United States of America and analyzed through logistical as well as linear methods. Another study broke down the connection between weight and body mass index or BMI.

Groups of eaters from meat eaters to strict vegans and everything in between were studied. The average weight gain across the five year span was lowest for those who adapted their diet to contain less animal products.

The body mass index followed suit as well. The age-adjusted body mass indexes were the highest for meat eaters. Conversely, the age-adjusted body mass indexes were the lowest for vegans.

Vegetarian dieters typically show about 2 points lower body mass index when compared to meat eaters.

Studies based with epidemiology in mind, presented findings that obesity was less apparent in adults and children when utilizing a healthy plant based diet.

Benefits For Diabetes

Diabetes begins with being “at risk” and patients, as well as physicians, find it difficult to control the progression from occurring quickly.

However, plant-based diets have been recognized as one of the best preventative measures for those who are at risk of developing diabetes. This risk is reduced by about half when evaluating vegetarians to non-vegetarians.

A long term study expressed that it was possible that non-vegetarians were up to 74% more likely to develop diabetes over the years. Many other studies promote this as well.

So why do we have issues identifying the ability to prevent diabetes from developing? It seems quite plain. An improved and regulated diet is probably the best route to prevent the development of diabetes.

Physicians are on board with setting up patients on plant-based diets for diabetes management. Giving a clear advantage over uncontrolled diets of diabetics, a plant-based diet can give a significant improvement in the quality of life of the patient.

Specifically a low fat, vegan diet. This is supported by the American Diabetes Association guidelines. These people find themselves capable of reducing their HbA(1c) levels by more than 1.00.

Additionally, this is being used to reduce the dependency on medication and boost insulin sensitivity. Reducing to little or no meat can also possibly decrease insulin resistance.

Benefits For Those At Risk Of Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease is often recognized too late. Switching to a vegetarian diet can often be the only answer to reversing some heart diseases such as atherosclerosis in which regression can be seen after about a year of strict vegetarian dieting.

Those diagnosed with heart disease are often given the same run around. Eat chicken and fish, reduce starches and red meat. This is a quick way of wrapping up the basis of a Mediterranean diet.

However, it doesn’t provide the education necessary for patients to understand how to build their own meals. A diet change of this caliber is a lifestyle change which requires facilitation and continued learning.

With heart disease, what must be watched most stringently is cholesterol levels. It is standardly recommended that to see regression, cholesterol should be limited to 5 mg per day.

These levels if allowed to go unchecked even in a standardly healthy person have the risk of developing heart disease. This is the risk with processed foods and meat heavy diets.

One study exposed that reductions in animal product consumption produced similar results to lipid-lowering prescriptions focusing on decreasing low-density lipoproteins for long term health benefits.

In addition, it is shown to greatly reduce the risk of contracting other heart issues such as stenosis.

Other diets have been tried and tested based on the Mediterranean diet which substitutes cream for canola and olive oil, swaps out butter for margarine, and makes these the only fats available as part of the diet.

These diets have produced results of coronary events decreasing in the 70% range. This is an astronomical rate of change.

Showing that extreme change in lifestyle can and will produce extreme results in health benefits given that you are moving in the right direction.

Evaluating heart disease one step further and assessing death rate ratios causes a more startling vision to come into focus.

The Permanente Journal presented findings of a 24% reduction associated to death rates from ischemic heart disease when compared against nonvegetarians.

This can be correlated to lower cholesterol intake. While there may be other factors at play, it is very difficult to look past a quarter lower death rates.

However, not all vegetarians receive these benefits. The lowered risk and prevention of a number of chronic or lifetime diseases aren’t benefits to all vegetarians.

A strictly “vegan” diet if not done properly will offer no health benefits and could lead to alternate health problems. The goal is to eat healthy and ensure your body is receiving what it needs as well as not receiving what it doesn’t need.

Benefits To Combat High Blood Pressure

What if, after reading everything listed above here, we were to point out that vegetarian diets are found to be associated with lower systolic blood pressure and lower diastolic blood pressure.

Would you believe that? If you are attemptimg to significantly lower blood pressure, it is recognized that a Japanese diet has presented extreme results.

Analyzing Mortality

A grim subject, but what we are all here for. Be it heart disease or stroke or falling into the catch all category of “total mortality” it was evaluated.

Plant-based dieters are connected with a reduction in risk of mortality through heart disease when compared to not plant-based dieters. This is identified to be directly tied to the lack of red meat in a plant-based diet.

The benefits of lowering, reducing or all out avoiding red meat is directly associated to longevity. This is a very cut and dry area of plant-based diets and should be taken plainly.

Those who continued to consume red meat in excess or regularly for extended durations of time show an increase in the risk of “all-cause” mortality rates and an increase in heart disease mortality.

A large analysis of comparing the mortality and heart disease mortality between vegetarians and nonvegetarians delivered that vegetarians had a 29% lower heart disease mortality rate.

Plant-Based Diet Health Concerns

What comes to mind for most people when switching to a plant based diet is missing out on all of the nutrients you get every day from meat, dairy, and eggs.

That is the go to question when a friend tells you they’ve gone vegetarian, “are you getting enough protein?”. From what we’ve discovered above though that just isn’t the case. Yes, there are aspects to be cautious of.

But we’ve come to understand that you are gaining more nutrients through plant-based diets while avoiding processed foods. We are going to break down the apparent concern of each aspect of plant-based diets.

This does tie in with the earlier issue of some vegans not benefiting from their stringent diets.

Concerns Regarding Protein

The cold truth of it is that plant-based dieters are at risk for deficiency in protein. It is managing this risk that becomes at first a bit of a chore, but quickly develops into second nature. Proteins are comprised of amino acids.

Some of these are essential which means they are pretty important. The difficulty lies in the fact that these essential ones just can’t be made by your body.

You have to get them from food and this is one of the things that drives us to meat because they are found in animal products.

They are however present in some plant-based foods too. Quinoa had a recent surge with the rage of veganism early last year. Quinoa contains essential amino acids and satisfies the protein requirements of our body.

Protein can also be satisfied through combinations of foods. It was the birth of the perfect pairing of pita and hummus, and rice and beans. Balancing these mixtures in with your diet ensures that protein needs are achieved.

Additionally, soy is a common protein. Besides the fact of soybeans being a great protein for the plant-based dieter, they offer a number of other benefits.

Soybeans have been known to reduce the risk of hip fractures, lower levels of lipoprotein and reduce the risk of certain types of cancers. This has been tracked in studies on breast cancer and is associated through soy’s estrogenic nature.

It was identified to lower the risk of recurrence and significantly lower the risk of death associated to the breast cancer. The same can be said of studies based on prostate cancer and cancer risk.

Please understand though that, as with all processed foods, over processed soy substitutes may not offer the health benefits you would imagine.

They are usually packed with isolated soy protein which means you should stick to minimally processed soy products such as tofu and soy milk.

Concerns Regarding Iron

Another go to question for the meat lovers is iron. Of course, meat is high in iron, but so are plants! It is just a different type, which has a lower bioavailability so our body has to work harder to extract it.

Specific foods to combat the concern of running low on iron are as follows: raisins, cashews, soybeans, black beans, oatmeal, kidney beans, tomato juice and cabbage.

Living with a plant based diet, or transitioning to this lifestyle may affect your built up stores of iron. However, anemia due to iron deficiency is identified to be rare in those who eat a plant-based diet.

Concerns Regarding B12

B12 is really important. I cannot stress that enough because it literally forms your blood and is needed for cell division. Deficiency of B12 should be taken very seriously, leading to possible nerve damage and macrocytic anemia.

B12 may be the only thing that regularly needs to be supplemented in a plant-based diet. Soy is your best bet in this department. It is high in B12, but all other go-to products are animal products.

Concerns Regarding Vitamin D and Calcium

Most people experience some level of Vitamin D deficiency. Plant-based options are getting a boost on the rest of the general population which brings us right back to soy products.

Also, whole grains and cereal grains are wonderful additions to the plant-based diet that offers a little more than usual. If you are at risk for possible low bone mineral density, it is recommended that you take supplements.

To go right in with the bone talk, let’s talk about calcium. This requires a bit of planning with a plant-based diet. There is an alternate risk for those who don’t eat their vegetables, fractures and impaired mineralization within the bones.

Great bone health comes down to healthy calcium consumption. The first thing to come to mind with calcium is milk which you would think makes it difficult for plant based dieters.

However, there is a long list of greens that are pumped with calcium. Kale, turnip greens, bok choy, and mustard greens are just a few of them.

Concerns Regarding Fatty Acids

There are essential fatty acids although the name doesn’t make them sound very important. There is the Omega-6 and the Omega-3 which have become household names. You can see a deficiency in fatty acids through the skin, hair and nails.

But this affects more than just the external as essential fatty acids also help to combat heart disease and strokes. This is often where vegetarians turn to nuts and seeds. Flax seeds, walnuts and canola oil are all rich in essential fatty acids.

Plant Based Protein Conclusion

Yes, a plant based diet requires a bit of planning as well as building the discipline of reading labels and understanding them. However, the benefits for long term health far outweigh the couple of months of learning and discipline.

The direct effect that a plant-based diet has on chronic and severe disease should be taken seriously.

It also isn’t full blown vegan or nothing. There is a balance that can be achieved so that you retain some of the health benefits. Instead of restricting everything bad, focus on increasing the good and reducing animal products.

Depleting the image of animal products as “bad” and just referring to them as “animal products” can help ease this transition and make things easy to identify as a yes or no for your meal plan.

While physicians are moving towards recommending these diets more, they should advocate to move away from the harsh language of vegan and vegetarian.

As they not only drive off some patients, but also don’t directly represent a healthy lifestyle or diet. There should be an emphasis on passing on information relating to plant-based diets and what areas of concern may affect the patient.

There isn’t a one-size fits all. However, the quick go to items can be found here as a very rough suggestion. Those at risk from coronary artery disease would benefit from a strict plant-based diet with little or no animal products.

Patients battling high blood pressure may benefit from low sodium focused plant-based diets. Obesity and diabetes may require a steady balance between plant-based and small amounts of animal products.

There are a number of contingencies but what is always suggested is to speak to your doctor about your dietary plans.

You may even want to consider meeting with a dietician when dealing with a chronic disease. They are able to work with you based on your medication requirements and recommend adjustments as needed.

Overall, while further research is still underway, we are beginning to see clearer benefits in limiting or reducing animal products and by-products in our daily lives.

This is being built through our physicians and our own devotion to developing an education on healthcare’s role in dietary decisions.

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