I’m convinced the second most important thing that anyone can do for their health is to try a whole-food, plant-based diet. For those of you curious about the single most important thing, well that’s to quit smoking–but we’ll save this topic for another day.
My Experience as a Vegan
As a lifelong meat-eater, making the switch to a plant-based diet was a challenge that I begrudgingly accepted for research purposes, and 30 days of free catered food, while in medical school. The study was looking at the effects of a vegan diet on one’s cholesterol panel–specifically LDLs.
Low-density lipoproteins, also known as LDLs, are typically touted as the body’s “bad” cholesterol. However, LDLs do serve a very important role when present at healthy levels in the body as they are instrumental in the process of making new cells. Unfortunately, at higher levels, they contribute to the narrowing of your blood vessels, putting you at risk for heart disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease.
High-density lipoproteins, or HDLs, are typically referred to as “good” cholesterol as it helps rid the body of excess cholesterol.
So, after just 1 month of a vegan diet what was my experience? Well, myself and most subjects enrolled in the study saw a
substantial reduction in their LDLs. The surprise for me wasn’t so much the improved cholesterol profile, but the fact that most meals served were incredibly delicious. There were so many interesting vegetables like fiddleheads, kohlrabi, and okra that I had never tried before.
Not only was I never hungry because I was eating loads of fruits and vegetables that are low in caloric density, but I lost 4 lbs in the process. Eat more, lose weight–now that’s my kind of diet!
Research-based Health Benefits of a Plant-based Diet
But, I don’t want you to simply take my word for it. Let’s take a look at the available research on plant-based diets and their potential effects on our bodies.
1) Plant-based Diets Lower Cholesterol
In a meta-analysis of 30 studies looking at a vegetarian diet, participants were found to have drastically different cholesterol profiles. On average, the LDLs for vegetarians was lower by 22.9mg/dL in observational studies and 12.1mg/dL in clinical trials compared to their meat-eating controls. 
How about HDLs? HDL levels weren’t found to be significantly higher in vegetarian diets, however, “Recent studies have shown that interventions that increase HDLs do not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and that genetic variants that raise HDLs do not necessarily reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” [1-4]
2) They can Help you Lose Weight
Another meta-analysis taking a look at 12 different studies focused on weight loss in relation to plant-based diets, found that plant-based participants lost around 4.5 lbs more than the meat-eating controls over a course of 18 weeks. [5,9,11]
A study also shows that vegans are capable of burning more calories after they eat as their food is not being stored as fat as readily as their meat-eating counterparts.
3) They Reduce Your Risk of Cancer
There are hundreds of research studies supporting the notion that cancer risk reduction occurs when adhering to a plant-based diet. If you haven’t already, take a look at Dr. Greger’s book entitled, How Not to Die.  This book offers a concise review of the literature showing that a plant-based diet can reduce our risk of developing colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer, to name a few. In part, this may occur due to the presence of phytonutrients in plant-based foods that have anti-inflammatory effects, reducing the number of free radicals that are implicated in cancer development.
In an interesting study by Ornish and Weidner, their data indicated that adhering to a plant-based diet while making other healthy lifestyle changes, like participating in regular exercise and stress management, can actually reverse the progression of prostate cancer. 
4) They Reduce Your Risk of Diabetes
Research shows that vegetarians have half the risk of developing diabetes [8,9]. The literature suggests that a vegan diet may be even better. A study looking at 60,000 individuals showed that the prevalence of diabetes was 2.9% for vegans as compared to 7.6% for their meat-eating counterparts. [9,10]
5) They Even Reduce Your Risk of Dying From Heart Disease
In 2012, another meta-analysis was performed looking at the mortality risk from ischemic heart disease in vegetarians compared to non-vegetarians. After observing over 124,000 individuals, they found that the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease was 29% lower in vegetarians. [9,12]
Sustainable Steps for Slowly Changing Your Diet
Despite experiencing the positive effects of a vegan diet nearly a decade ago, I did not switch to a vegan diet indefinitely. However, gradually over the years, I have incorporated more and more plant-based meals into my daily routine. Plant-based meals are now the norm for me sprinkled in with a few meat and dairy containing dishes when out on the weekends with family and friends.
The key here is, you don’t have to go all-in at once. Developing new eating habits that stick will take time and effort. These gradual changes helped me make the transition:
Switch the milk from your morning coffee to a plant-based option like almond, hemp, or, my favorite, coconut milk.
Instead of eggs in the morning, eat oatmeal or chia seeds loaded with your choice of fruit and nuts. When in a rush, my go-to breakfast is a banana–which comes in a convenient carry-along package supplied by Mother Nature.
For lunch, make yourself a healthy rice bowl or salad. May sure to avoid loading it with lots of cheese.
Looking for a cheese replacement? Use nutritional yeast or “cheese” made from cashews. You still get that kick of flavor, without the unhealthy side effects. A lot of these options can be purchased on thrivemarket.com.
Are you into protein drinks? Transition from whey to a plant-based protein which tastes almost as delicious.
Instead of eating vegetables as a boring, unseasoned side, make sure they are incorporated into your meal in a creative, well-seasoned fashion. For instance, I like making rice bowls and mixing in whatever veggies are in the fridge for a creative medley of phytonutrient-rich deliciousness.
Slowly but surely, these small changes will cause you to transition to more of a plant-based diet without the drastic change in lifestyle that would occur should you decide to go vegan overnight. As you make these changes, watch as you feel better, have more energy, trim your waistline, lower your risk of cancer, and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease as you improve your cholesterol profile.
How about you? What are your tips for transitioning to a plant-based diet?
Keene, D., Price, C., Shun-Shin, M. J., & Francis, D. P. (2014). Effect on cardiovascular risk of high density lipoprotein targeted drug treatments niacin, fibrates, and CETP inhibitors: meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials including 117 411 patients. Bmj, 349, g4379.
Frikke-Schmidt, R., Nordestgaard, B. G., Stene, M. C., Sethi, A. A., Remaley, A. T., Schnohr, P., ... & Tybjærg-Hansen, A. (2008). Association of loss-of-function mutations in the ABCA1 gene with high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and risk of ischemic heart disease. Jama, 299(21), 2524-2532.
Huang, R. Y., Huang, C. C., Hu, F. B., & Chavarro, J. E. (2016). Vegetarian diets and weight reduction: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of general internal medicine, 31(1), 109-116.
Ornish, D., Weidner, G., Fair, W. R., Marlin, R., Pettengill, E. B., Raisin, C. J., ... & Aronson, W. J. (2005). Intensive lifestyle changes may affect the progression of prostate cancer. The Journal of urology, 174(3), 1065-1070.
Huang, T., Yang, B., Zheng, J., Li, G., Wahlqvist, M. L., & Li, D. (2012). Cardiovascular disease mortality and cancer incidence in vegetarians: a meta-analysis and systematic review. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 60(4), 233-240.