Vegan and Vegetarian Diets Offer Extensive Health Benefits

Vegetarian and vegan diets have been linked to reduced risk factors for cancer and cardiometabolic diseases, according to recent research published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study, which reviewed 49 studies spanning from 2000 to 2023, found significant health benefits associated with plant-based diets.

“Overall, vegetarian and vegan diets are significantly associated with better lipid profile, glycemic control, body weight/BMI, inflammation, and lower risk of ischemic heart disease and cancer. Vegetarian diet is also associated with lower mortality from cardiovascular diseases,” wrote the study authors.

Additionally, they reported that these diets were not only linked to improved cardiometabolic health but also a decreased risk of prostate and gastrointestinal cancer.

How vegan and vegetarian diets promote good health: Previous research suggests that diets high in meat, sugar, refined grains, and salt are associated with a greater risk of death.

Moreover, reducing the consumption of animal products has been shown to lower the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietitian supervisor at RR-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, expressed no surprise at the findings of the latest research.

“Whole food plant-based diets are beneficial for a number of reasons, including their fiber, vitamin, and mineral contents, as well as their anti-inflammatory properties. Although there are many known benefits of plant-based diets, there are also numerous unknown entities within them that contribute to their healthful properties,” she said.

While the researchers noted overall benefits of plant-based diets, they found that pregnant women following a vegetarian diet did not have a different risk of hypertension and gestational diabetes compared to those following a non-plant-based diet.

However, the researchers also cautioned that some plant-based diets could lead to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals in certain individuals.

Pooja Adhyaru, an accredited practicing dietitian in Melbourne, Australia, emphasized the importance of careful planning when adopting a plant-based diet.

“If not planned carefully and if we don’t eat a balanced diet, plant-based diets may result in some nutrient deficiencies, especially in certain populations such as babies, children, women of childbearing age, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, menopausal women, and older adults. Our nutrient requirements vary at different stages of our lives, and our diets need to be adjusted accordingly to achieve optimal health,” she said.

In the United States, meat consumption is high compared to the global average, which experts say can have serious health consequences. Christopher Gardner, PhD, a professor of medicine and nutrition science at Stanford University, emphasized the importance of dietary recommendations that prioritize plant-based foods.

“I believe the advice has been plant-based for many years in all of these groups. Not plant-exclusive, not vegan, but more plants and less meat than Americans currently eat and than they have eaten for the past few decades,” he said.

To maintain a healthy diet, experts recommend limiting processed and red meats while emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources like seafood, soy products, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

“I can design both a healthy and an unhealthy vegetarian or vegan diet. I would say it isn’t so much one vs the other that defines its comparative healthfulness, I would say it is how you choose to follow or practice either of those dietary patterns,” Gardner added.

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