Two different diets are equally heart-healthy, according to scientists in a new study published in the journal of the American Heart Association, Circulation. For the first time, researchers compare a vegetarian diet and a Mediterranean diet in the context of reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
A vegetarian diet, specifically a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, is commonly known as a person who eats eggs and dairy but not meat and fish. On the other hand, a Mediterranean diet usually describes someone who eats poultry, fish, and some red meat, plus lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. The Mediterranean diet is also recommended by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The new Circulation study is the first study to compare the effects of each diet, although studies have been done with both individually, examining their ability to reduce risk factors for heart disease.
Researchers recruited a group of 107 people, all who tried both diets over time. Participants were healthy but overweight, all between the ages of 18 and 75. Each participant was randomly assigned to follow either a low-calorie vegetarian diet or a low-calorie Mediterranean diet for three months. After the time was up, they switched to the other diet.
After each participant spent three months on each diet, researchers found that certain changes were made with both diets. On both the vegetarian and the Mediterranean diet, participants lost three pounds of body fat, lost four pounds of weight overall, and exhibited the same change in body mass index (BMI), a value that incorporates an individual’s height to weight ratio.
Experts from the study say that both diets are healthy because of their focus on fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, and nuts. In an accompanying editorial discussing the study, the University of California’s Cheryl A. M. Anderson, PhD, MPH, MS, says that benefits from both diets also come from dedication to “diet variety, nutrient density and appropriate amount of food” as well as “limiting energy intake from saturated fats.”
All of these benefits associated with each diet make a vegetarian or Mediterranean eating lifestyle a particularly healthy choice for preventing and managing obesity and other risk factors for heart disease.
Researchers from the study did notice two distinctions between the two diets as far as reducing risk factors. The vegetarian diet was more effective at lowering the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, AKA “bad” cholesterol, in comparison to high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. On the other hand, the Mediterranean diet was more effective at reducing levels of triglycerides. The risk of heart attack increases when triglyceride levels increase.
All things considered, the bottom line is that either the vegetarian diet or the Mediterranean diet is a healthy choice. "People have more than one choice for a heart-healthy diet,” said lead author Francesco Sofi, MD, PhD, from the University of Florence and Careggi University Hospital in Italy.