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Vegetarian and vegan diets may reduce risk of heart disease and cancer, study finds

A plant-based diet is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and death, according to a large-scale study released Wednesday.

The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, analyzed the results of nearly 50 studies published between 2000 and 2023.

Studies have examined the health effects of vegetarian or vegan diets, which limit all animal foods, including dairy.

A clear consensus emerged: both dietary habits were associated with a lower risk of cancer and ischemic heart disease (heart problems caused by narrowing of the arteries). In particular, the diets appeared to reduce the risk of prostate cancer and gastrointestinal cancers like colon cancer. Vegetarian diets were also associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, plant-based diets were associated with a reduction in risk factors for heart disease and cancer, including high body weight, inflammation and LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

“This research shows, in general, that a plant-based diet can be beneficial, and that small steps in that direction can make a difference,” said Matthew Landry, one of the review’s authors and an assistant professor population health and disease prevention. at the University of California, Irvine.

“You don’t have to go completely vegan to get some of these benefits,” he added. “Even reducing a day or two per week of animal-based consumption can have benefits over time.”

However, Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, pointed out that not everyone who follows a plant-based diet eats the same foods, so levels of health always varies.

“A vegetarian diet might be based primarily on refined starches and sugar, which we consider to be the worst dietary pattern,” Willett, who was not involved in the new research, said in an email.

He says a healthy plant-based diet should consist primarily of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, soy, beans and non-hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Why are plant-based diets so healthy?

Researchers are still studying the mechanisms by which plant-based diets reduce disease risk.

Part of this could be related to preventing obesity, which is linked to heart disease and some cancers. But the benefits likely extend beyond that, Landry said.

“Some of it is independent of weight. Even when weight is maintained or doesn’t change, we still see reductions in some of these other clinical health outcomes, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular disease,” he said.

One possible reason is that many fruits and vegetables are rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients and antioxidants, which can reduce plaque buildup in the arteries.

Plant-based diets also tend to be high in fiber, which helps lower bad cholesterol, said Brie Turner-McGrievy, professor of health promotion, education and behavior at the University of Carolina. from South. She published a study in 2014 that found plant-based diets can reduce risk factors for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. The research was included in the new review.

“Soluble fiber found in things like beans and oats is really a powerful tool to help lower LDL cholesterol levels,” she said.

Turner-McGrievy noted, however, that many of these benefits can only be achieved by eating whole foods: “It’s not like you can take a fiber supplement and expect to get the same results.” »

Another benefit of a plant-based diet could come simply from not eating meat, she said. Vegan people tend to consume less saturated fat than meat eaters.

“It’s really difficult to reduce your saturated fat intake if you’re eating animal foods,” Turner-McGrievy said. “Cheese, for example, is the number one source of saturated fat in the diet.”

Processed meat products such as bacon or salami are also known to increase the risk of cancer, according to the World Health Organization. The agency considers red meat in general a “probable human carcinogen.”

Is a vegan or vegetarian diet suitable for everyone?

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarian and vegan diets are adequate and healthy at all stages of life, including pregnancy, childhood and old age.

But the new study didn’t go so far as to recommend a plant-based diet for everyone.

“During pregnancy it is not recommended, based on the data that we must follow a strict vegetarian diet,” said Dr. Federica Guaraldi, one of the review’s authors and an endocrinologist at the Institute of neurological sciences IRCCS of Bologna in Italy.

Guaraldi and his co-authors found that the plant-based diets studied did not reduce the risk of gestational diabetes or hypertension in pregnant women. A study included in the review suggests that pregnant women who followed a vegetarian diet had lower zinc levels, which is important for children’s growth, development and immune function. than those who ate meat. Another study in the journal found that vegetarian mothers had an increased risk of giving birth to a low birth weight baby.

The review authors also warned that plant-based diets could lead to vitamin B12 deficiencies in the general population. Landry said this can be addressed by taking a B12 supplement.

“From my perspective as a dietitian, a healthy plant-based diet – whether vegetarian or vegan – can really meet almost all of your vitamin and mineral needs,” he said.

News Source : www.nbcnews.com
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