Yes, Plant-Based Diets Really Are Better for Your Health, Review Finds

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The health benefits of vegetarianism and veganism are unmistakable, according to a new review.

After reassessing 48 previously published papers on the health effects of plant-based diets, researchers from the University of Bologna concluded that such lifestyles reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.

Before millions are encouraged to forgo their fish and red meat, however, the researchers stress that more thorough studies are still needed to account for the potential risks of such restrictive diets.

The findings were published in PLOS One.

Vegans, vindicated

Ischemic heart disease is the leading cause of death globally. As a suboptimal diet (insufficient intake of fruit and vegetables, excessive intake of red meat, etc.) is a strong risk factor for the disease and other conditions like gastric cancer, the World Health Organization has called on governments around the world to promote healthy diets to reduce disease incidence and severity.

To test whether vegetarian and vegan diets meet such healthy criteria, the researchers from the University of Bologna reread 48 previously published reviews and meta-analyses. These reviews assessed dozens of studies, including randomized controlled clinical trials, that had investigated the risks plant-based diets pose to blood pressure, cardiovascular events, pregnancies, cholesterol and other health qualities.

The Bologna researchers’ own “umbrella review” of the papers concluded that, overall, plant-based diets were firmly associated with better health outcomes regarding blood pressure, blood sugar management and body mass index scores. In turn, the diets appeared to lower the overall incidences of ischemic heart disease and gastrointestinal and prostate cancers.

There were fewer benefits for pregnant people, however. Among the pregnant women studied in the literature, those sticking to vegetarian diets experienced no significant differences in their risk of gestational diabetes and hypertension compared to the women who ate meat during their pregnancies.

Nonetheless, the Bologna researchers say that, overall, their findings suggest plant-based diets are associated with significant health benefits, even independent of other healthy lifestyle factors, such as exercise.

“Certainly long term wellbeing depends on a healthy lifestyle which includes not only healthy diet but also regular physical exercise and avoidance of risky habits (i.e., tobacco smoke and drug abuse),” Davide Gori, an associate professor at the Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Sciences at the University of Bologna, told Technology Networks.

“Therefore, we mentioned that, to a certain extent, the results we have observed could be related to a generally more healthy lifestyle followed by vegetarians and vegans.”

“Nevertheless,” he continued, “it is important to underline that the results shown in our paper strongly support the importance of diet per se, which means that adhering to a vegetarian or to a vegan diet, independently from other factors, significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and of underlying conditions (i.e., hypercholesterolemia, hyperglycemia/diabetes, overweight) and of cancers (i.e., gastrointestinal, pancreatic, prostate).”

As for those keen on a healthy, plant-rich lifestyle but unwilling to give up the occasional chicken sandwich, Gori says that while the odd bite of meat could fit into a healthy routine, the review’s findings can’t guarantee so.

“The occasional consumption of meat or fish or poultry should not significantly alter the benefits of a healthy plant rich diet, but this cannot be assumed by our study since we deliberately included only articles focusing completely on vegan or vegetarian diet allowing, in some cases, animal derived products (i.e., ovo-vegetarian or lacto-vegetarian regimen) but not sporadic [consumption] of fish, meat and poultry,” he said.

According to Gori, more thorough studies that account for such dietary flexibility will be needed before such conclusions can be made. These studies should also ideally research the potential vitamin deficiency risks posed by plant-based diets, say the Bologna researchers, to test the safety of the diets and their suitability for people with particular nutritional needs.

About the interviewee

Davide Gori is an associate professor at the Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Sciences at the University of Bologna.

Dr. Gori was speaking to Leo Bear-McGuinness, Science Writer for Technology Networks.

Reference: Capodici A, Mocciaro G, Gori D, et al. Cardiovascular health and cancer risk associated with plant based diets: an umbrella review. PLO On. 2024. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0300711

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