Why Everyone Should Eat a Plant-Based Diet

No matter your age, a plant-based diet can lower your risk of heart disease, obesity and more.

Good news for lettuce lovers: The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that vegetarian and vegan diets rich with fruits and vegetables can be appropriate for people of every age, including infants, pregnant women, children, adolescents and the elderly. What's more, those eating plant-based diets consume fewer sweets, salty snacks and saturated fats overall.

While there isn’t one true definition of the plant-based diet, the main focus is on fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. Some people choose to eat small amounts of meat, fish or dairy, while others may cut them out entirely. People also often avoid added sugars and processed foods in favor of whole, natural foods. The diet has been shown to reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, and may even lengthen your life. "A whole-foods, plant-based diet is the diet behind the longest-living populations on Earth," says family practitioner Joe Llenos, MD of West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell, Idaho. "It's a diet for everyone."

Here’s how a plant-based diet can benefit all ages, along with some tips on getting started. Remember: Anytime you make major changes to your eating habits—especially if you have allergies, intolerances or conditions like celiac disease—you should speak to your healthcare provider first. And your new lifestyle should be properly planned out, too.

How plant-based diets affect every age

The advantages of plant-based eating start early. Introducing toddlers and children to veggies and fruits broadens their palates, provides necessary nutrients like iron and protein and helps prevent chronic diseases. “They are actually finding that the vegetarian kids have a lower risk of being overweight and being diagnosed with diabetes or obesity,” says Dr. Llenos. Part of the reason? Kids who consume meat tend to eat foods like ham and bacon, which are high in fat, not to mention may be carcinogenic. In large doses, they can increase the risk of colorectal cancer.  

Those benefits of plant-based diets continue through adolescence and adulthood, straight on into our 70s and 80s. Llenos says they might even help the elderly stave off dementia: "There's a lot of good evidence that fruits and vegetables, particularly berries and colorful fruits, help prevent or slow down cognitive decline." Loss of muscle mass, another issue common in seniors, may also improve. "Plant-based proteins like beans and vegetables alkalinize the body and preserve muscle mass,” says Llenos.

How to adopt a plant-based diet

If you’re accustomed to eating meat or aren't sure how to start a plant-based diet, begin with menu planning. “The average family has about eight to nine menus that they repeat regularly,” says Llenos, so try thinking about them in a slightly different way. Here are five tips to help:  

1. Get the whole family on board.

Adopting an eating plan with your children and spouse together is the first step. Plan menus with your partner and have kids pitch in with cooking.

2. Think of three vegetable meals you enjoy.

Planning out your weekly menus and grocery lists is key in adopting a plant-based eating regimen. Think of three meals you already enjoy that are veggie based. “At some point you’ve probably enjoyed red beans and rice, vegetable stir fry and vegetable soups," says Llenos. Make sure to incorporate those.  

3. Think of three recipes that can be made vegetarian.

You can still enjoy some of your favorite dishes, sans the meat. “If you’re the type that loves chili, then use all of the same ingredients but replace the meat with more beans," says Llenos. "You can eat bean burritos instead of beef burritos and veggie burgers instead of the usual burger."

4. Take advantage of online resources.
Recipe websites and blogs can help you come up with creative vegetarian menu ideas. Llenos recommends the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s library of menus.

5. Having problems? Focus on breakfast.  

If you’re having trouble making the transition, focus on breakfast foods like cereal, oatmeal and fresh fruit. “My favorite breakfast would be Muesli: oats, mixed nuts, dried fruits and berries,” says Llenos. "I soak them overnight in sugar free almond or soy milk, and in the morning I eat it with a side of fruit "

The bottom line? A plant-based diet has many health benefits, but it’s best to make a gradual transition if you’re used to eating meat. Here are some other ways to get started.

See more from Dr. Llenos.

Learn more about the benefits of a plant-based diet from Blue Zones, the world's healthiest communities.

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