5 Science-Backed Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Photo shows a smiling woman holding a fork with several plates and bowls lined up on the table in front of her.

Vegan food has never been hotter. According to SPINS data released by the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association, plant-based food sales hit $7 billion in 2020. Fifty-seven percent of U.S. households bought plant-based foods that year—a four percent increase from the previous year. But plant-based foods don’t just taste good—they also do the body good. Studies show that eating a plant-based diet has a number of health benefits, from lowering blood pressure to promoting clear skin. And more people are embracing plant-based foods as a result.

A 2020 study by retail analytics and insights company Ipsos Retail Performance found that the number of Americans who have shown interest in a plant-based diet has grown by more than nine million since 2004. And this figure is only expected to increase in the coming years.

5 benefits of a plant-based diet

From helping to lower blood pressure to aiding in clearer skin, plant-based diets have been shown to have a number of health benefits. Just keep in mind that while a plant-based diet may help foster these benefits, a vegan diet should not be used as a remedy for any health-related problems. Always consult with your healthcare professional before making any dietary changes.

Photo shows a pile of fresh produce, including green beans and vibrant, varied tomatoes. Here are some of the science-backed benefits of a plant-based diet.
Whole foods such as fruit and vegetables can help to lower blood pressure. | Yulia Reznikov/Getty

May help lower blood pressure

Blood pressure is the pressure of blood as it circulates through artery walls. High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when blood is pushed through arteries at a higher pressure. 

According to Maggie Neola, R.D., L.D., a staff dietitian for the Barnard Medical Center, high blood pressure affects about half of all adults in the U.S. Uncontrolled high blood pressure increases the risk for health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Lifestyle, age, genetics, and various medicines, such as certain birth controls, can all be contributing factors for high blood pressure. But so are the foods that one consumes. A 2018 review found a plant-based diet is more beneficial for cardiovascular health. The assessment of observational studies and clinical trials found eating plant-based reduces the risk of hypertension by 34 percent.

Musician Will.i.am went vegan back in 2017 after a trip to his doctor. At the time, the Black Eyed Peas frontman suffered from high blood pressure, among other health issues. After going plant-based, he noticed several health improvements, telling Arianna Huffington of The Thrive Global Podcast: “I switched my regimen, went plant-based and it changed my life. I lost 20 pounds. My cholesterol came down. My high blood pressure came down. My stress levels came down naturally. I have more energy.”

In a PSA for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit that advocates for plant-based eating, Neola and award-winning nutritionist Tracye McQuirter discuss how certain foods impact blood pressure.

“People who follow a plant-based diet typically have lower blood pressure than those who consume animal products,” explained Neola. 

Plant-based foods are also typically low in sodium and fat, which raise blood pressure. And they’re also free from cholesterol. “Fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium, which helps lower blood pressure,” McQuirter, who’s been vegan for more than 30 years, said. “You’ll find plenty of potassium in tomato products, bok choy, figs, mangoes, and other plant sources.”

Photo shows a salad bowl featuring avocado, grains, seeds, and greens with a small dish of peanut and miso sauce. Eating a plant-based diet has a variety of different science-backed health benefits.
Some proponents also report lowered cholesterol after switching to a plant-based diet. | Enrique Diaz/Getty

May help lower cholesterol

Okay, so we know that high cholesterol is bad… but what exactly is it? 

According to the American Heart Association, the body uses cholesterol to build cells and make vitamins. It can either be made by the liver or obtained from animal-derived sources, such as meat, chicken, and dairy. But too much of it can be damaging to the body. High cholesterol can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases like stroke and heart disease.

In 2018, filmmaker Kevin Smith almost died from a massive heart attack caused by high cholesterol. He says his daughter, Harley Quinn, helped him get his health back on track by convincing him to go plant-based.

​​“Obviously, [high cholesterol] is what almost killed me,” he says. “The nutritionist explained the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle and Harley kind of seized on that moment. And so I said: ‘Well, I’ve eaten the way I want to eat for 47 years, I will try your way for a couple of months.’”

After ditching meat and dairy, Smith saw massive improvements in his health. He dropped more than 50 pounds in just six months, and he’s kept the weight off. His blood pressure also returned to normal levels.

Photo shows two people preparing food at home.
Some studies indicate that diet is a contributing factor in cancer rates. | Tom Warner

May decrease the risk of certain cancers

According to the CDC, in the U.S., cancer is the second-leading cause of death, following heart disease. But studies show many cancers are preventable with certain lifestyle changes, such as diet.

A 2015 study published in JNCI Cancer Spectrum found that more than 80,000 cases of cancer could be attributed to a poor diet each year. “This is equivalent to about 5.2 percent of all invasive cancer cases newly diagnosed among US adults in 2015,” said Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, one of the study’s authors.

Physician and New York Times best-selling author Dr. Michael Greger regularly speaks to the benefits of a plant-based diet, especially as they pertain to preventing and reversing disease. (He even wrote a book about it: How Not to Die.) “Animal proteins, such as meat, egg white, and dairy protein, increase the level of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a cancer-promoting growth hormone involved in the acquisition or progress of malignant tumors,” he explained.

This is evidenced in a 2005 study, which found that a plant-based diet helped to reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer.

In 2017, London Irish rugby star Darren Dawidiuk told BBC Sport that he switched to a vegan diet in order to help him recover during his battle with testicular cancer. “The doctors have already noticed the benefits of me being on a vegan diet and they are encouraging me to keep it up and continue with my training,” he said.

“By following this diet I feel much healthier and don’t feel as bloated, which is giving me the energy to train in the gym,” he continued.

Photo is an overhead shot of a table with many people sat sharing food and passing plates.
The health benefits of a plant-based diet also include clearer skin. | Knape/Getty

May help promote clear skin

Acne is one of the most common skin conditions in the U.S., impacting up to 50 million people each year. 

Want clearer, glowing skin? A plant-based diet may help with that. Just ask vegan bodybuilder Brian Turner. He gained a massive following on social media for documenting his journey with acne, which he was able to alleviate with a plant-based diet.

“My biggest improvement with acne came when I first removed dairy entirely out of my diet and upped my vegetable intake to 12-16 servings a day while making sure to get plenty of hydration (which for me, is around 2 gallons of water),” he explained.

“If and when you do break out, don’t let it get you down! You are so much more than your acne, and you deserve an amazing life with or without pimples,” he continued. “You are beautiful and you are not alone.”

May help prevent diabetes

Is there anything Haile Thomas can’t do? The 20-year-old motivational speaker and activist is one of the youngest Certified Integrative Health Coaches in the country. She founded her own youth empowerment non-profit, Happy, at the age of 12. She has written her own cookbook, Living Lively, and she even opened her own fast-casual teahouse, Matcha Thomas.

But, overall, her mission lies in teaching others about the benefits of eating healthy, plant-based foods. Her vegan journey began when she was just eight years old, after her father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

“When he was diagnosed, we started looking into his medication and side effects and realized quickly that wasn’t a route that we wanted him or our family to go down. So, we took the path of food instead of medicine,” she explained. “Within about a year, we were able to completely reverse his condition without medication by changing our lifestyle, educating ourselves on the choices we were making, getting into the kitchen more and finding ways to make fruits and vegetables taste really good.”

The positive link between a vegan diet and type 2 diabetes has been well-documented. A 2017 study found a plant-based lifestyle (omitting animal products and refined foods) is highly beneficial for managing and preventing the disease.

“I think oftentimes with illnesses, like Type 2 diabetes, doctors are quick to say that it runs in the family. But what we’re seeing is that it’s actually the dietary choices that run in the family,” said Thomas.

“​​If your plate has looked like meat, rice, gravy and like one teaspoon of vegetables for two or three generations, those habits and those kind of points of view on food are going to be pretty set in stone for the next generations and continue to be passed on,” she continued.