The latest scientific research conducted in the US shows that following a vegetarian diet appears to reduce the risk of death by heart disease by 40%! This is fantastic news for followers of plant-based living, or those thinking seriously about adopting it.
There are many papers written about the benefits of reducing meat on our health, yet still our appetite for it hasn’t changed that much.
Having said that, vegetarianism, and particularly veganism, has grown in popularity over the last few years. This has been helped by an explosion of social media and celebrity endorsement of plant-based living.
Plant-based diets is a tricky one to define, because I’ve seen many articles now using plant-based when they mean vegan. So let’s just say that plant-based means exactly that: a diet that is based primarily on plants but may include other nutritional sources (such as fish; animal by-products like dairy, eggs, honey; and meat).
Plant-based diets include:
- Flexitarian: eat meat and/or fish on some days but have meat-free days
- Pescetarian: eat fish and shellfish, but not meat. May eat eggs and/or dairy
- Vegetarian: excludes fish and meat, but may eat eggs/dairy
- Vegan: excludes all animal products, often excluding honey and extending to using animal-based non-nutritional products such as beeswax, leather, cochineal among others
So the philosophy behind plant-based living is usually: sustainable eating; choosing plant options most of the time, and animal options some (or none) of the time; and going back to basics with food preparation (ie, avoiding highly processed food).
Researchers from the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, US wrote a review based on past clinical trials and observational studies to conclude that plant-based diets lowered the risk of death by heart disease by 40%.
It also improved many known risk factors for heart disease including:
- Blood pressure was reduced in followers of plant-based diets by up to 34%
- Total cholesterol, and “bad” cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) was reduced
- Weight tended to be lower
- Vegetarians also appeared to have cleaner coronary arteries, one of the primary causes of heart attacks
Plant-based diets appear to reverse coronary heart disease according to the authors, something drugs are unable to do.
Protein and Heart Disease
The American Heart Association also published a study that followed over 2000 men aged in their 40s and 50s for more than 20 years, and found that high animal protein diets were linked to a higher risk of heart failure compared to those who ate little.
This study doesn’t suggest that vegan diets are better – since they found no association with fish or egg consumption and heart failure risk, and some association with plant-based protein.
They calculated the risks by protein groups as:
- 33 percent higher for all sources of protein
- 43 percent higher for animal protein
- 49 percent higher for dairy protein
- 17 percent higher for plant protein
Women don’t get away it either. An earlier study found that women over 50 had a higher risk of heart failure if they followed a high protein diet, especially if most of that protein came from meat.
The take-home message from this therefore, is that protein should form the smallest part of our diet (usually around 15-20%), and that it should consist the least from animals (both meat and dairy).
Proteins are hugely important, and form the building blocks of almost everything in our bodies. However, most of us get plentiful supply of it, as protein is ubiquitous in our diet, providing we eat a varied diet that comes mostly from plants and least from animals.
Science is so convincing now about the benefits of plant-based diets, that governmental recommendations are changing around the world
In 2016, the United Kingdom revisited its dietary recommendations and published the Eatwell Plate that highlights the importance of plants over animals for nutrition. In both the segments where animal proteins exist, it is emphasising alternatives such as beans, pulses and vegetable oil (rapeseed oil in the UK).
There is an alternative guideline produced by BANT, which has an ever-increasing voice in British nutrition guidance; however they have a stronger emphasis on animal-based protein, particularly for eggs, fish and poultry, but not on dairy produce. Possibly due to a historical leaning toward the Paleo diet, whereas the dietetic community tend to lean toward the Mediterranean diet.
In Canada, the new guidelines appear to suggest a plant-based diet in their summary of Guiding Principles and Recommendations. Although full details will be known once they publish their final recommendations.
The US has set out its plans to shift healthy eating patterns toward a Mediterranean style and vegetarian style habit in their Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 document. This doesn’t mean vegetarianism is recommended, but emphasis on protein from meat and dairy is reduced, and focus shifted to plants.
Sweden emphasise eating greener (environmentally friendly), The main aim is to encourage consumers to eat less meat and meat products and more plant-foods including whole grains, vegetables and fruit, as well as healthy oils and some fish to decrease the risk of common chronic diseases in Sweden, especially cardiovascular disease, overweight/obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
In 2016, China advised its citizens to consume less meat and reduced its guideline on daily meat consumption from 50g per day to 40g in order to curb the rising epidemic of chronic diseases.
Slowly, the world is catching on to the fact that plant-based living is the future. It always takes governments years longer to adapt than their general population, with the obvious exception of Scandinavian countries like Sweden!
We seem to be falling in love with our kitchens again, and for a food fanatic like me, that’s a really good thing.
So if you haven’t embraced plant-based living yet – when will you? It doesn’t have to be difficult, and doesn’t have to be overnight either. Start on Monday – have one day a week that’s totally vegetarian, and then extend that to two or three.
In fact, easing yourself into a plant-based diet little by little is better for your gut. Suddenly increasing dietary fibre can be a little embarrassing if you get my drift! And if you don’t, try it one day that you’re not seeing anyone and ensure you have plenty of toilet roll – you’ll soon get my drift!
Now go and try a spicy vegetarian recipe such as this lovely tarka dhal – and feel your arteries unclog.
Seb is a nutritionist registered with the Association for Nutrition and a writer specialising in plant-based nutrition and men’s health. He graduated from Chester University with a masters degree in human nutrition and loves discovering new and vibrant plant-based recipes.