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Health

These diets could reduce cancer, heart disease and premature death, says 20-year study

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Following a vegan, vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian diet significantly reduces the overall risk of developing cancer, heart disease and dying prematurely from cardiovascular disease, according to a new “umbrella” analysis of more than 20 years of research.

A general review examines existing metaanalyses of a large number of studies, providing an overview of existing research on a topic.

In addition to reducing cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure and cholesterol, the overall analysis revealed a “protective effect” for specific cancers including “liver, colon, pancreas, lung, prostate , bladder, melanoma, kidney and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. ” said lead author Dr. Angelo Capodici, a graduate student in health sciences, technology and management at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy.

Vegetarians do not eat any animal flesh, while the lacto-ovo version of vegetarianism allows dairy products and eggs while excluding all meat, poultry and fish. Veganism, the strictest form of vegetarianism, prohibits all food products made from meat, poultry and seafood as well as any animal by-products such as gelatin.

However, the protective nature of diets could be sabotaged if poor food choices were made, the study authors said by email.

“Diets that emphasize eating unhealthy plant foods, such as fruit juices, refined grains, chips, and even soda,” could counteract the benefits of a plant-based diet for health, said study co-author Dr. Federica Guaraldi, medical director of the pituitary unit at the IRCCS Institute of Neurological Sciences in Bologna, Italy.

Fruit juices, which are “full of sugars or sweeteners,” Guaraldi said, “(have) recently been shown to have a detrimental impact on metabolism as much or more than white sugar.”

Researchers have long known that people who follow a plant-based diet often lead healthier lives, exercising and avoiding sugary foods and drinks, refined grains, snacks, alcohol and tobacco, according to the study.

“What is being attributed to diet here may be due in part to other lifestyle practices,” said Dr. David Katz, a preventive medicine and lifestyle specialist who founded the True Health Initiative, a non-profit organization, a global coalition of experts dedicated to evidence-based living. medicine. He did not participate in the study.

“However, this is a minor concern,” Katz said in an email. “The net effect of predominantly plant-based diets clearly supports crucial health outcomes, even if some of the observed benefits are attributable to other lifestyle practices. »

In fact, eating a plant-based diet, even without additional exercise, could still have health benefits, according to a November study of twins by Christopher Gardner, one of the co-authors of the overall review. published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

In the 2023 study, healthy twins who followed a vegan diet for eight weeks had less “bad” low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol, better blood sugar levels and loss of weight greater than siblings who ate a meat-and-vegetable diet, according to Gardner, a research professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in Palo Alto, California.

“There was a 10-15% drop in LDL cholesterol, a 25% drop in insulin, and a 3% drop in body weight in just eight weeks, all from eating real foods without animal origin,” Gardner told CNN at the time. .

One reason for this could be the nutritional benefits provided by plants, including high levels of vitamins, minerals and other substances with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, while also reducing the inflammatory impact of meat and processed foods, the authors said.

“Plants have more fiber (animal foods have none), less saturated fat, and zero cholesterol (all animal foods contain cholesterol),” Gardner said in an email. . “An entirely separate category is phytochemicals (literally “plant chemicals”) such as antioxidants. By definition, there are no phytochemicals in animal foods.

No meat, poultry or seafood, but dairy and eggs are OK

The new review analyzed 48 meta-analyses that studied the impact of a vegetarian or vegan diet on the development of cancer, cardiovascular disease and premature death.

“We analyzed reviews of vegan and vegetarian diets that completely exclude meat, poultry and seafood,” said study co-author Dr. Davide Gori, associate professor of biomedical and neuromotor sciences at the University of Bologna in Italy.

“To be more specific regarding vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian (allowing certain dairy products like yogurt, cheese and milk), ovo-vegetarian (allowing whole eggs, egg whites and egg-containing foods like mayonnaise, egg noodles and some baked foods). goods), (and) lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets were included,” Gori said in an email.

However, vegetarian diets that limit but do not completely exclude certain types of meat and fish, such as pesco or pollo-vegetarian diets, have been excluded, he said.

The study found that consuming these plant-based diets reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and inflammation by affecting risk factors such as body mass index, fasting blood sugar and other blood sugar control measurements, as well as systolic (top) and diastolic (bottom). blood pressure measurements.

The diets also significantly reduced total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and “C-reactive protein — an index of inflammation that is typically higher in cardiovascular and metabolic diseases,” Gori said. Metabolic diseases are a constellation of symptoms such as obesity, high blood pressure, and poor cholesterol and blood sugar control, all of which can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

However, consuming plants showed no benefits for pregnant women, an “intriguing finding” that requires further research, said Guaraldi of the IRCCS Institute of Neurological Sciences. It is also possible that pregnancy hormones affect the results, and “we cannot exclude that participants took supplements during the study period which could have modified the impact of diet on the parameters considered.”

Wesley Soares Ferracini/Moment RF/Getty Images

Vegans abstain from all meat and animal by-products.

Because certain vitamins and minerals are more easily found and absorbed in meat, dairy or fish, vegetarians and vegans should take extra care to add them to their diet, experts say.

Unless the diet is carefully optimized, additional sources of B12, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin D may be necessary to avoid deficiency, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Strictly vegan diets can be deficient in vitamin B12,” Gardner said. “This problem is easily solved by consuming foods fortified with (vitamin) B12 – easy to do because the recommended daily intake of B12 is lower than that of any other vitamin or mineral.

“Iron is another nutrient that is more difficult to obtain on a completely vegan diet,” Gardner added. “Many plant foods are relatively high in iron (beans/legumes). Again, supplements can be helpful.

Protein is also a challenge, but good plant-based sources include legumes like lentils, chickpeas and beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and soy products like edamame, tempeh and tofu.

Processed meat alternatives are also options, experts say, but due to processing they may be packed with sodium, so read labels carefully.

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