Are plant-based diets inherently healthy?

Are plant-based diets inherently healthy?

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“Plant-based diets” is a term without a formal definition, commonly encompassing flexitarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets. Although the definition may be debatable, there is no arguing that these styles of diet are gaining popularity in many parts of the world. This increased uptake is partly due to perceived health benefits (lower risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mortality) and partly because lower amounts of animal-source products in the diet generally means a lower footprint for several environmental metrics. However, plant-based diets do not exclude unhealthy foods like sweets, highly processed food products or sugary drinks. In fact, some meat and dairy alternatives may contain a high amount of salt, unhealthy fats, or artificial additives.

A recent paper in Nutrition, Obesity, and Exercise investigated the risk for disease and mortality associated with plant-based diets of different compositions. They used a sample from a UK population-based prospective study of 126,394 (mainly white) adults, aged 40-69. They defined a “healthy plant-based diet” to be one that includes mostly whole grains, fruit and vegetables, nuts and legumes. Alternatively, “unhealthy plant-based diets” were characterised by a high share of refined grains, potatoes, sugary drinks, fruit juices, sweets and desserts. In these plant-based diets, animal-source foods were not fully excluded, and low consumption of all types was observed.

The healthy plant-based diets were indeed associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer, as well as a lower mortality risk. The authors state this may be a result of high fibre intake, lower inflammation, and insulin sensitivity due to consumption of unprocessed plant food, as well as a low cholesterol content. On the other hand, unhealthy plant-based diets were associated with a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and mortality risk. The authors thereby concluded that “plant-based diets may not be beneficial per se and can be detrimental for health depending on their composition”. This is clearly true for all diets, indicating that broad classifications of diet types, such as plant-based, do not give any conclusions on qualities, such as healthiness.

This SNippet was written by Renee Cardinaals, a visiting PhD student from Wageningen University & Research, The Netherlands.

Photo by Grooveland Designs on Pexels


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