Not all vegetarian diets are healthy, study shows

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In a new study, researchers found vegetarian foods are not equally healthy.

The finding highlights the variable nutritional quality of plant foods, and it was more evident in women.

The research was conducted by a team at Harokopio University, Athens, Greece.

Most dietary studies define plant-based diets simply as “vegetarian” or “low in meat”, thereby treating all plant foods as equal.

The unique aspect of this study was that it examined the type of plant-based foods consumed, in addition to the overall amount.

Healthy plant-based products were principally the least processed foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and tea/coffee.

Unhealthy plant-based products consisted of juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, and any kind of sweets (e.g. chocolate, Greek traditional desserts, etc.).

The study examined the link between the amount and quality of plant-based foods and heart health over a 10-year period.

In 2001 and 2002, the study randomly selected a sample of adults living in Athens who did not have heart disease or other chronic conditions.

The current analysis was conducted in 146 obese participants with normal blood pressure, blood lipids, and blood sugar.

Within a decade, nearly half of these obese participants had developed high blood pressure, high blood lipids, and high blood sugar—a combination that is particularly risky for heart health.

Men who consumed more plant-based foods were less likely to have this decline in health status. A trend was also observed in women, but it did not reach statistical significance.

Regarding the quality of plant-based foods, the team found healthier choices were linked with maintaining normal blood pressure, blood lipids, and blood sugar.

Conversely, consuming unhealthy plant-based foods was linked to developing high blood pressure, high blood lipids, and high blood sugar.

These relationships were stronger in women compared to men.

The team says eating less meat is beneficial for heart health, particularly when it is replaced with nutritious plant foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil.

One author of the study is Dr. Matina Kouvari.

The study was presented at ESC Congress 2020.

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