The benefits of a plant-based diet are well-documented, but there are some surprising and unexpected pros you may not have known.
Better mental health, reduced your risk of heart disease, blood pressure and certain types of cancer, as well as zero cholesterol — there are so many familiar advantages a vegan diet has on the body. But the mainstream pros sometimes overshadow the slightly lesser-known but equally helpful and important ones.
Here are some of the best surprising and unexpected benefits of a plant-based diet for your body.
Improves period pain
While the effects of a vegan diet on periods have been vocalised by many women, there is research that suggests plant-based diets can improve period pain in women.
In one study, women switched to a low-fat vegan diet for two menstrual cycles and then back to an omnivorous diet for the following two cycles. The research noted the intensity and duration of pain, premenstrual symptoms as well as hormonal levels affecting the amount of oestrogen.
On a low-fat vegan diet, women reported less pain intensity and duration and shorter premenstrual symptoms, and the researchers found lower oestrogen levels.
Separate accounts by women have revealed that switching to a plant-based diet meant a lighter flow, less painful cramps, decreased bloating and fewer mood swings
Apart from lowering the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and cancer, the health benefits of a plant-based diet extend to reducing the risk of developing migraine attacks.
Migraines are often associated with what we eat, and a vegan diet excludes several common migraine triggers. A diet crossover trial has revealed that whole-food plant-based diets can be promising for people living with migraines.
In the study, 42 people received a placebo supplement or followed a vegan diet for 16 weeks. The people eating plant-based saw significant reductions in pain, with a decrease of more than two points on a 10-point scale, compared to less than one for the supplement takers. The researchers also found changes in body weight and cholesterol levels.
The study confirmed what many have long claimed about the effects of veganism on their migraines. Meat and meat products contain inflammatory properties, and so, eliminating them could have an anti-inflammatory effect. Additionally, a plant-based diet may affect hormones like oestrogen, which is associated with migraines.
Reduced risk of UTIs
A urinary tract infection is the most common bacterial infection in women. Over half of all women experience at least one UTI in their lifetime, with at least 10% of the female population contracting one in a given year.
The bacteria E coli is the most common culprit, finding its way though the intestine into the urinary tract. But E coli strains are also found in farm animals like chickens and pigs, which means eating contaminated meat can lead to infection.
One study confirmed that meatless diets can reduce the risk of UTIs. People on a vegetarian diet were found to have a 16% lower risk of UTIs compared to non-vegetarians, which is in line with previous data that suggests bacteria from meat is a major contributor to UTIs and is displaying antibiotic resistance.
Changing body odour
Eating plants means you smell better, according to science. A 2006 study evaluated the effects of meat consumption on body odour attractiveness, separating men into vegetarian and meat-eating groups, taking samples of their odour and asking women to sniff them.
Each body odour sample was rated for its pleasantness, attractiveness, “masculinity” and intensity. Men on a vegetarian diet were found to have better body odour ratings, a result that was consistent even after the groups switched their diets and had their odours samples again.
Body odour is strongly affected by what’s emitted through your sweat glands. The toxins from decomposing meat get secreted along with your sweat. And while those toxins may smell bad themselves, they attract bacteria that feed on them and emit further foul smells.
It’s true: a plant-based diet means your stool is much more consistent and, for lack of a better term, of higher quality. While there have been several reports about constipation on a vegan diet, that usually happens at the beginning of the transition between any two diets, as your body needs time to adapt and adjust to new foods. It’s also a case of eating more processed food instead of whole-foods plant-based meals.
But longer-term, a fibre-rich vegan diet can increase bowel movements by improving digestion. Bowel movements from plant-based and vegetarian diets lead to a more consistent stool that is easier to pass, compared to meat-eating diets heavy on saturated fat.
By eating plant-based foods, you consume a lot more fibre. That means less straining and better-formed stools as fibre adds bulk. A 2016 study also showed that people following a vegetarian diet with lots of fruits and vegetables for 12 weeks reported less constipation.
Lower chances of food poisoning
Vegans have reduced chances of attracting food poisoning than those who eat meat. Bacterial growth that causes food poisoning tends to stem from foods like chicken, shellfish, beef, raw eggs, cheese, unpasteurised milk and ready-to-eat foods.
The bacterium Campylobacter is the leading cause of food poisoning in the UK, and it’s most commonly found in chickens (70% of supermarket chickens in the UK are contamined with it). Other contributing factors include E coli, salmonella and listeria.
That doesn’t mean vegan food can’t make you sick, but the risk is low and prevention easier. Thoroughly wash your produce, make sure your grains and plant protein sources are fully cooked, avoid pre-prepped fruits and vegetables from supermarkets, ensure that your packaged juice is pasteurised, and watch the dates for plant-based dairy alternatives.