Health benefits provided by vegan, vegetarian plans

  • Researchers report that a review of 49 studies spanning 23 years of research has found that vegan and vegetarian diets have numerous health benefits.
  • They say that plant-based diets are associated with better health status for risk factors for diseases such as cancer and cardiometabolic disease.
  • Experts say reducing the intake of meat and focusing on vegetables and fruits are key components to a healthy diet.

Vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with lower risk factors for cancer as well as cardiometabolic diseases, according to new research published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers said their review of 49 studies published between 2000 and 2023 found that plant-based diets are associated with significant health benefits.

“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,” the study authors wrote.

They also reported that not only were vegetarian and vegan diets associated with better health status relating to cardiometabolic health, but they were also associated with a reduced risk of prostate and gastrointestinal cancer.

Previous research suggests that a diet that is low in plant-based foods but high in meat, sugar, refined grains and salt is associated with a greater risk of death.

Past studies also indicate that reducing consumption of animal products can reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietitian supervisor at RR-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, says the findings in the latest research aren’t surprising.

“I am not surprised at all at the findings of this review paper that found associations among plant-based diets and better health status. I have long-known about these associations and believe this is one more paper to further demonstrate those healthful conclusions,” Hunnes, who wasn’t involved in the research, told Medical News Today.

“Whole food plant-based diets are beneficial for a number of reasons including their fiber, their vitamin and mineral contents, their bioactive compounds that make them highly anti-inflammatory (including polyphenols, anthocyanins, etc). And, although there are many ‘knowns’ about plants and their healthfulness, there are also a number of unknown entities within them that contribute to their healthful properties,” she added.

While the researchers noted an overall benefit to plant-based diets, among pregnant women specifically, those who ate a vegetarian diet saw no difference in their risk of hypertension and gestational diabetes compared with their pregnant peers who ate a non-plant based diet.

The researchers also noted that some plant-based diets can lead to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals in some people.

Pooja Adhyaru, an accredited practicing dietitian in Melbourne, Australia, says if done properly, eating plant-based can have numerous benefits.

“Like any other 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 who are trying to conceive, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, menopausal women, and older adults. Our nutrient requirements vary at different stage of our lives, and our diets need to be adjusted accordantly to achieve optimal health,” Adhyaru, who was not involved in the research, told Medical News Today.

“Plants are also naturally high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, which… we can’t get from animal products,” she added. “Fiber is an essential nutrient that has number of benefits such as it helps improving our gut health, lowering cholesterol, keeping us fuller for longer so helps in weight management as well as managing blood sugars.”

Proportionately to population, people in the United States consume a high amount of animal products.

Animals products account for 30% of total energy intake and 65% of total protein intake. The global average for meat consumption is 18% of total energy intake and 40% of total protein intake.

Per capita, the United States has some of the highest consumption of meat in the world.

Americans eat more than 50 kilograms per person of poultry annually as well as 26 kilograms per person of beef and veal, and nearly 24 kilograms of pork.

Experts say a high intake of meat can have serious health consequences.

Christopher Gardner, PhD, a professor of medicine and a researcher of nutrition science at Stanford University in California, has worked as an advisor with the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and the scientific advisory board of the Culinary Institute of America.

He says the organizations are united in their overall dietary recommendations.

“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 told Medical News Today.

The World Health Organization notes processed meat is carcinogenic to humans. Red meat is considered to probably be carcinogenic to humans.

“Often there is a dose-dependent relationship. The more meat/animal-products we consume, the higher the risk of developing certain types of cancers (GI cancer is a notorious one). Meat… decreases tumor suppression and is associated with increases in tumor growth. So, that’s one reason we want to decrease our meat consumption,” Hunnes said.

Experts say meat may also be unhealthy for other reasons, including fat and salt content.

“Animal products such as red meat (beef, veal, pork and lamb) should be consumed in moderation. Highly processed meats and deli meats (frankfurters, salami, chorizo, cabanossi, kransky, corned beef, pepperoni, pastrami, bacon, ham) should be avoided,” Adhyaru added.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that a healthy eating plan emphasize fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low fat and fat free meat products. Protein sources can include seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, soy products, seeds, nuts, 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 it’s comparative healthfulness, I would say it is how you choose to follow or practice either of those dietary patterns,” Gardner said.

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