A whole food, plant-based diet may help reverse the trajectory of existing disease, including diabetes and heart conditions. (For Health Beat)

Doctors have long praised the benefits of a plant-based diet centered on whole foods.

Beans and legumes. Whole nuts and seeds. Whole grains. Fruits and vegetables.

All are great choices.

The problem? Many people don’t follow a healthy eating plan, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

But eating a diet rich in vitamins, nutrients, protein and fiber can help reduce the risk of developing many diseases.

A plant-based diet can help improve cardiovascular health, blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as fighting diabetes. It’s a leading tool for weight loss and it can help reduce cancer risk and promote a healthy brain.

And it’s not just about fighting disease. The benefits of whole food, plant-based eating can be applied across your entire lifespan, Kristi Artz, MD, medical director for the culinary medicine program at Corewell Health, said.

“A plant-based diet is the single greatest thing we can do for our overall health,” Dr. Artz said. “It’s affordable and friendly to the planet as well. It can also help reverse the trajectory of existing disease or lessen symptoms of existing disease.”

Best of all, the diet is appropriate for all ages.

“It’s a dietary pattern that has been extensively studied,” she said. “And it includes lifestyles like the Mediterranean diet.”

Here are some common conditions and diseases where a plant-based diet can be a powerful tool in your arsenal:

Excess weight

Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight ties directly to the quality of food in your diet. A whole food, plant-based diet is high quality.

The greatest benefit of a plant-centered diet is found in the concept of calorie density. Foods lower in calories but higher in nutrients can supply your body all the nutrients it needs, Dr. Artz said.

“While keeping overall calorie consumption lower, avoiding calorie-dense foods helps you maintain a healthy weight,” she said. “And if you’re overweight, this can help you lose weight, too, in a way that doesn’t require as much focus on portion control.”

When you eat foods naturally lower in calories—such as green leafy vegetables, beans, legumes and chickpeas—you’re getting more nutrition and less calories. You can then eat with less focus on portion size, which is important when finding sustainable ways to control weight.

“Feeling satisfied after a meal and enjoying the meal is important, too,” Dr. Artz said. “We have created culinary medicine classes focused on the concept of calorie density. It is one of the most powerful ways to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.”

Bottom line: Focusing on your food’s calorie density will help you feel fuller for longer.

Heart disease

A whole food, plant-based diet is well recognized as beneficial in preventing and treating heart disease, Dr. Artz said.

“This is because whole plant foods are high in fiber, low in fat,” she said. “And when they do contain fat, it’s predominantly unsaturated fats. Whole plant foods are also high in micronutrients and antioxidants that reduce inflammation in the body.”

Also, keep in mind that plaque formation in arteries can contribute to a heart attack.

“We want to prevent inflammation and plaque formation from occurring,” she said. “This can be done effectively by adopting a whole food, plant-based diet.”

Fiber, meanwhile, is only found in whole plant foods—not in animal foods.

“Fiber-containing foods can reduce inflammation and improve gut health,” she said. “Soluble fiber is also well demonstrated to help reduce LDL cholesterol, which is one of the main risk factors for cardiovascular disease.”

Most whole plant foods do not contain saturated fat, the type of fat that can increase bad cholesterol.

Dr. Artz recommends focusing on foods low in saturated fats, such as legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure goes hand in hand with heart disease. When you shape a healthier diet to target high blood pressure, you may also find improvements in heart health.

An interesting feature of whole plant foods: They’re naturally higher in vitamins and potassium and naturally lower in sodium.

In developing healthy blood pressure, dietary potassium is important.

“Studies have been done on flaxseed and the role it can play to help reduce blood pressure, too,” Dr. Artz said. “And the DASH diet works great for hypertension. It is similar to the Mediterranean diet, with small amounts of animal proteins, but is highly effective in reducing blood pressure.”


A whole food, plant-based diet can be especially beneficial to someone with Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes.

“It can really simplify eating for these folks,” Dr. Artz said.

Plant-based diets can help you achieve weight loss and maintain a healthy weight.

“And that’s important for someone with Type 2 diabetes,” she said.

Obesity is a significant indicator of Type 2 diabetes. It’s critical to understand which foods can lead to improvements.

“Rather than carbohydrates being the problem, we like to focus on complex carbs,” she said. “Think legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Eating a whole food diet—even including fruit—is low in calories and high in fiber.”

You can still eat certain foods with carbohydrates despite a diabetes diagnosis, because high-fiber foods can help you achieve better glucose and insulin levels.

“A plant-based diet simplifies the approach to eating and takes away the confusion of what to eat,” Dr. Artz said. “It can make the process of controlling blood pressure and sugar levels much more straightforward, versus protein and carb-counting.”


An unhealthy diet and lifestyle can increase the risk of developing several types of cancer. Breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer and endometrial cancer can be associated with a diet that’s low in quality, Dr. Artz said.

On the other hand, you can help reduce your risk of certain types of cancer by following a whole food, plant-based diet.

“Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can help a person stay healthier and live longer,” she said.

There is also a strong effect on the epigenome, where a cancer gene may be turned on or off based on what we’re eating, she said. You should aim to include foods rich in antioxidants and micronutrients.

Alzheimer’s disease

There is a strong connection between diet and brain health throughout a person’s lifespan, especially as it applies to risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

“Maintaining the health of our blood vessels through a high-quality diet impacts our brain health,” Dr. Artz said. “When we eat naturally high-nutrient foods like flaxseeds, whole grains or legumes, this helps impact vascular health and protects the brain from cognitive decline.”

There is also evidence that the MIND diet, which includes whole plant foods like berries, grains, walnuts and chia seeds, can be of particular benefit in combating cognitive decline as we age.

Fatty liver disease

Obesity and excess weight are risk factors for fatty liver disease.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is the most common reason women need a liver transplant later in life, Dr. Artz said. This disease can significantly impact health, but people aren’t always aware they’re batting it.

By following a healthy diet, fat can be eliminated from liver tissue. This promotes a healthier liver that can perform its necessary functions.

“A whole food, plant-based diet is lower in fat and higher in nutrients,” Dr. Artz said. “Through the adoption of a whole food diet, we can begin to see a reversal in early states of fatty liver disease.”

Exercise, too, can be a great way to help treat early stages of fatty liver disease, as it helps reduce fat in the liver by way of weight loss.

“A plant-based diet has so many benefits for a variety of different conditions,” Dr. Artz said. “It’s the most powerful medicine I have ever prescribed.”