AUG 30, 2020 7:07 AM PDT

Plant-Based Diets Are Healthier When Low in Processed Foods

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

While many research studies have shown that reducing red meat intake and eating more plant-based foods is healthier, not all plant-based diets are created equal. If a plant-based diet does not contain the right foods, it may not offer many health benefits. Research presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2020 has indicated that vegetarian foods are not equally healthy.

"Our study highlights the variable nutritional quality of plant foods," said study author Dr. Matina Kouvari of Harokopio University in Athens, Greece. "This finding was more evident in women. Prior research has shown that women tend to eat more plant-based foods and less animal-based products than men. But our study suggests that this does not guarantee healthier food choices and in turn better health status."

In may dietary studies, plant-based diets are vaguely described as "low in meat" or "vegetarian," which collects all plant-based foods into a general group, treating them equally. In this work, however, the researchers examined what type of food something was as well as the overall total of food. The impact of the amount and quality of plant-based foods that were consumed over a period of ten years on heart health was examined.

The study showed that healthy plant-based foods tend to also be those that are processed less, like nuts, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and tea or coffee. Plant-based foods that tended to be unhealthy included any type of sweets or sweetened beverages, refined or processed grains, juices, and potatoes.

The ATTICA study selected a random sample of 146 adults living in Athens in 2001 and 2002. They did not have chronic or cardiovascular conditions, their diet was assessed with a questionnaire that included pictures and portion sizes. The study volunteers were obese but had normal blood pressure, lipids, and sugar. Within ten years almost half of them had developed high blood pressure, lipids, and sugar; none of those are good for the heart. Men who ate more plant-based foods were less likely to have those declines, and the trend was similar but not statistically significant in women.

There was also a connection between the maintenance of normal blood pressure, lipids, and sugar. The consumption of unhealthy plant-based foods was linked to a risk of high blood pressure, lipids, and sugar. This time the association was stronger in women than men.

"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," said Dr. Kouvari. She noted that this work is applicable to obese individuals, and cannot be extrapolated for other groups.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via European Society of Cardiology

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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