Living a long and fulfilling life is not a new goal but it has never been as achievable as it is in 2019. The internet’s infinite wisdom means people can access the latest evidence and make informed decisions about their health. It is widely accepted that sticking to a healthy diet can ward off life-threatening risks, but what is the best diet? Increasing evidence makes a strong case for following a vegetarian diet.
According to research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, eating mostly plant-based foods and fewer animal-based foods may be linked to better heart health and a lower risk of dying from a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular disease.
The finding is significant considering cardiovascular disease is one of the main causes of death and disability in the UK, but it can often largely be prevented by leading a healthy lifestyle.
“While you don’t have to give up foods derived from animals completely, our study does suggest that eating a larger proportion of plant-based foods and a smaller proportion of animal-based foods may help reduce your risk of having a heart attack, stroke or other type of cardiovascular disease,” said lead researcher, Casey M. Rebholz, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland.
Researchers reviewed a database of food intake information from more than 10,000 middle-aged U.S. adults who were monitored from 1987 through 2016 and did not have cardiovascular disease at the start of the study. They then categorised the participants’ eating patterns by the proportion of plant-based foods they ate versus animal-based foods.
People who ate the most plant-based foods overall had a:
- 16 per cent lower risk of having a cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks, stroke, heart failure and other conditions;
- 32 per cent lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular disease and
- 25 per cent lower risk of dying from any cause compared to those who ate the least amount of plant-based foods.
“Our findings underscore the importance of focusing on your diet. There might be some variability in terms of individual foods, but to reduce cardiovascular disease risk people should eat more vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fruits, legumes and fewer animal-based foods. These findings are pretty consistent with previous findings about other dietary patterns, including the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH diet, which emphasise the same food items,” Rebholz said.
Research also suggests dieters who go vegetarian are almost twice as effective in reducing body weight. The finding is significant because obesity is linked to a host of life-threatening complications.
The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, found that dieters who go vegetarian not only lose weight more effectively than those on conventional low-calorie diets but also improve their metabolism by reducing muscle fat.
Losing muscle fat improves glucose and lipid metabolism so this finding is particularly important for people with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, said lead author, Dr. Hana Kahleová, Director of Clinical Research at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington DC.
Seventy-four subjects with type 2 diabetes were randomly assigned to follow either a vegetarian diet or a conventional anti-diabetic diet. The vegetarian diet consisted of vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits and nuts, with animal products limited to a maximum of one portion of low-fat yoghurt per day; the conventional diabetic diet followed the official recommendations of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD). Both diets were restricted by 500 kilocalories per day compared to an isocaloric intake for each individual.
The vegetarian diet was found to be almost twice as effective in reducing body weight, resulting in an average loss of 6.2kg compared to 3.2kg for the conventional diet.
Using magnetic resonance imaging, Dr. Kahleová and colleagues then studied adipose (fat-storage) tissue in the subjects’ thighs to see how the two different diets had affected subcutaneous, subfascial and intramuscular fat (that is, fat under the skin, on the surface of muscles and inside muscles).
They found that both diets caused a similar reduction in subcutaneous fat. However, subfascial fat was only reduced in response to the vegetarian diet, and intramuscular fat was more greatly reduced by the vegetarian diet.
This is important as increased subfascial fat in patients with type 2 diabetes has been associated with insulin resistance, so reducing it could have a beneficial effect on glucose metabolism. In addition, reducing intramuscular fat could help improve muscular strength and mobility, particularly in older people with diabetes.
Dr. Kahleová said: “Vegetarian diets proved to be the most effective diets for weight loss. However, we also showed that a vegetarian diet is much more effective at reducing muscle fat, thus improving metabolism. This finding is important for people who are trying to lose weight, including those suffering from metabolic syndrome and/or type 2 diabetes. But it is also relevant to anyone who takes their weight management seriously and wants to stay lean and healthy.”