A whole-food, plant-based diet of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grains prevents and treats the most serious and debilitating diseases of our day: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
An estimated 7.8 million premature global deaths a year could be avoided if people ate ten portions of fruits and vegetables a day, a recent study concluded. “Fruits and vegetables have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and to boost the health of our blood vessels and immune system,” wrote the study’s lead author, Dr. Dagfinn Aune, after a massive review of 95 studies on fruit and vegetable intake.1
“The vast array of beneficial compounds cannot be easily replicated in a pill, Aune said: ‘Most likely it is the whole package of beneficial nutrients you obtain by eating fruits and vegetables that is crucial to health. This is why it is important to eat whole plant foods to get the benefit, instead of taking antioxidant or vitamin supplements (which have not been shown to reduce disease risk).’”2
Include a variety of colors on your plate to ensure that you get a wide range of disease-fighting antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber, flavor, and satiety. The plant foods highlighted below are only a few outstanding examples and include members of the nut and grain families as well.
Here are some compelling reasons to eat leafy greens on a regular basis. We’re talking kale, collards, chard, spinach, dark lettuce, bok choy, dandelion, and mustard—the darker, the better! High in vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants that protect cells from damage, these nutrient-dense, low-calorie, high-fiber wonders lower your risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, macular degeneration, and cataracts. The high level of vitamin K in greens (other than spinach and swiss chard) makes them important in the production of osteocalcin, a protein essential for bone health. The risk of hip fracture in middle-aged women decreased 45 percent when one or more servings of green, leafy vegetables were consumed daily.3
Legumes—better known as beans, peas, and lentils—are the seed portion of the vegetable family. Apart from being one of the healthiest low-fat ways to get your daily protein, legumes are rich in healthy starch, fiber, B vitamins, iron, folate, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc. They lower cholesterol levels, regulate bowel movements, stabilize blood sugar, and provide important antioxidants for cellular protection. Convenient and inexpensive, members of the legume family show up in many cultures in a variety of forms—think hummus, baked beans, dahl, tofu, and split pea soup for starters.4
Small fruits like cherries, red grapes, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries are extremely high anti-inflammatories that reduce the effects of cell and vessel damage.5
But skip all the hype about red wine being a good source of antioxidants. Fresh red grapes will give you the same benefit. And recent studies link all forms of alcohol to at least seven kinds of cancers, including breast cancer.6
A grain is “whole” when the entire grain seed is retained: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Grains have gotten an unfortunate reputation as “bad carbs” because most people eat them in their refined state stripped of their fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and healthy fats. Refined grains are some of the biggest culprits in our current health crisis. Think white flour, white rice, white pasta, and most boxed breakfast cereals.
Whole grains are a great source of magnesium, fiber, complex carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and healthy fats. Think whole barley, quinoa, millet, amaranth, brown rice, steel-cut oats, stone-ground cornmeal, and whole grain flours made from wheat, rye, buckwheat, and spelt.
In a comprehensive review of 14 research studies about whole grains, the Harvard School of Public Health made the following observations. Eating three servings of whole grains a day was associated with a 25 percent lower risk of death from heart disease and a 14 percent lower risk of death from cancer, compared with eating one serving or less of whole grains daily. A diet with whole grains was associated with lower blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol levels, and lower amounts of body fat. In summary, people who reported eating at least three servings of whole grains daily were 20 percent less likely to die early from any cause compared with people who reported eating less than one serving a day.7
People who eat nuts the most frequently, lived the longest and were the leanest! Think almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts, pistachios—and many more! (Even the lowly peanut, although technically a legume, gets a seat at the nut party.) The surprising results came from a 30-year study of 120,000 people and was reported in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
“Eating nuts lowers LDL (“bad” cholesterol), raises HDL (“good” cholesterol) and also lowers blood pressure and blood pressure responses to stress,” said Dr. Kris-Etherton in a recent highlight of the research on nuts. HDL cholesterol is now understood to sweep away fatty plaque within our arteries, aiding us in protecting our hearts and brains, preventing cancer, and reducing inflammation.
Those trying to keep the pounds off need not worry either, as nuts, while high in healthy fats, are also high in protein and fiber, delaying absorption and decreasing hunger.8
But don’t overlook the littlest members of the family. Nuts are just large seeds, and seeds like chia, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, pine, and hemp also pack a powerful nutritional punch.
“Eating Up to Ten Portions of Fruit and Vegetables a Day May Prevent 7.8 Million Premature Deaths Worldwide,” Science Daily, sciencedaily.com, Feb. 23, 2017.
Winston Craig, “Health Benefits of Green Leafy Vegetables,” VegetarianNutrition.info, May 14, 2015.
“Healthy Food Trends - Beans and Legumes,” MedlinePlus, medlineplus.gov, May 26, 2020.
Joseph et al, “Berries: Anti-inflammatory Effects in Humans,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 62(18), 2014, pp. 3886–3903.
“Alcohol and Cancer Risk,” National Cancer Institute, cancer.gov, July 14, 2021.
S. Miller, “Whole Grains Each Day Linked to Longer Life,” LiveScience, June 14, 2016.
J. Corliss, “Eating Nuts Linked to Healthier, Longer Life,” Harvard Health Publishing, health.harvard.edu, Nov. 20, 2013.