Older Adults May Benefit from a Plant-Based Diet
Going plant-based isn't as tough as you might think and the benefits could be life-changing
Five years ago, after Dr. Jon O'Neal's fourth friend died suddenly of a heart attack, O'Neal spent a long time thinking about his friends' dietary habits, which prompted him to rethink his own.
"As much as I love food, I love being around and being healthy," says O'Neal, who grew up in Kansas and lived in Texas. "I was a complete omnivore. I could drive blindfolded to the three best barbecue places in Austin. I'd go to the Kansas City barbecue. But then I started having my friends in Kansas City die of heart attacks and I looked at that and said, 'I choose to live past sixty.'"
O'Neal, a Phoenix-based occupational medicine specialist, began reading about the health benefits of reducing or eliminating animal products from his diet. He spent the next three years transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, gradually adopting eating habits revolving around fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans and other plant-based foods.
"I do think you easily can live to age 100 or 110 following a healthy approach to a plant-based diet."
"I started by cutting back on red meat. Then I cut back and cut out chicken. Then I cut out fish. And then I eventually cut out butter, cheese, milk and eggs," says O'Neal, who follows a vegan diet but refers to his eating style as plant-based. "I'm now sixty-four years old; I feel better in my sixties than I did in my forties. Less joint inflammation. I sleep better. I'm the same weight that I was in my thirties in the Air Force, and my blood pressure is significantly lower now than it was when I was in my thirties, at the same weight."
The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
A growing body of research shows that adopting a plant-based diet helps people of all ages maintain or improve their health.
Studies have found that people who mostly eat plant-based foods but may have some meat, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy may lower their risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Healthy plant-based diets have been associated with increased longevity and improved quality of life, and some research shows that older adults who consume plant-based diets may maintain their muscle strength, bone mass and sense of balance.
"Eating a predominantly plant-based diet is safe, [and] it can be enjoyable and nutritious and varied. And I do think there are very clear health benefits at whatever point in life you begin to make those changes," says preventive cardiologist Dr. Laurence Sperling, founder of the Emory Center for Heart Disease Prevention in Atlanta. "There's good evidence that dietary patterns that lend themselves more towards a plant-based diet have significant health benefits, and that has to do with prevention of many, many chronic diseases – heart disease, many cancers, diabetes."
What a Plant-Based Diet Entails
There isn't one official plant-based diet; you simply adapt your eating habits to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and more while eating fewer animal products. There's no pressure to follow strict rules or give up steak forever.
A plant-based diet is easier to adhere to than fad diets, which people usually quit within weeks or months. To get the most out of a plant-based diet, you need to make permanent lifestyle changes.
"If you look at a food label and it has 52 ingredients in it, and many of those you can't pronounce, be cautious of that."
"If I were to tell my patients, 'Oh, I think you should go vegan,' they're going to look at me and say, 'You're crazy doc, no way,'" O'Neal says. "But if I tell my patients, 'You need to eat less animal and more plant products,' they can understand that."
If you decide to adopt a plant-based diet, tell your doctor to make sure that it's right for you.
"What you don't want to do is end up with any specific deficiency, [so] make them aware of your dietary approach in the context of your general health and your age," Sperling says. "I do think you easily can live to age a hundred or a hundred and ten following a healthy approach to a plant-based diet."
Adopting a Plant-Based Lifestyle
Try these ideas:
- Make gradual changes for longer-lasting success. Start small. “There are seven days a week for the traditional eating patterns, three meals a day,” Sperling says. “Many Americans eat animal protein in all twenty-one of those meals. So as a starter, start picking a few meals [to have] without animal protein.”
- Cut back on animal-product portion sizes. You’ll still get the flavors you enjoy. “The Culinary Institute of America has even coined the term the ‘protein flip’ – how can you use animal protein as a condiment, seasoning or accent,” says Debbie Petitpain, a Charleston-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “For example, instead of a chicken thigh with a side of broccoli, could you serve a broccoli stir-fry with a few slices of chicken breast?”
- Gravitate toward whole foods. Favor the produce aisle. “If you look at a food label and it has fifty-two ingredients in it and many of those you can’t pronounce, be cautious of that,” Sperling says. “There are healthier fats, unhealthier fats, healthier proteins, unhealthier proteins — similar to carbs. You can be on a very unhealthy low-carb diet and you can also be on a very unhealthy vegetarian diet.”
- Occasionally enjoy plant-based meat products. They’re processed and contain fat and sodium, but have their merits. “They’re wonderful to transition,” O’Neal says. “Sure, they’re imitating other foods, but we watch movies and that’s imitating real life... So what if I’m eating imitation animal products? I’m being healthier.”
Should Vegans Worry About Consuming Enough Nutrients?
While it's not difficult for vegetarians or vegans to consume ample amounts of plant-based protein, it is important to be mindful of the quality of the protein, says Dr. Laurence Sperling.
"You want to be careful, if you're a complete vegetarian or vegan, that you're not depriving yourself of certain minerals and vitamins and essential amino acids. They're called essential because our body doesn't make them, and we need to get them through our diet," Sperling says. "If you aren't going to eat animal protein, high-quality rice and beans can often give you those amino acids and essential minerals."