Vegetarian foods: are all vegetable diets healthy?

Research recently published at the Congress of the European Society of Cardiology shows that vegetarian foods are not all equally healthy. The study sheds light on the different nutritional quality of plant-based products and suggests that this does not guarantee healthier food choices and thus better health.

Could vegetarian foods be unhealthy?

full table with vegetable products and dishes as well as vegetarian foods

The scientists’ finding was more evident in women. Previous research has shown that women tend to consume more plant-based foods and fewer animal products than men. Most nutritional studies define plant-based diets simply as “vegetarian” or “low in meat,” which treats all plant-based foods as the same. The unique aspect of this study was that in addition to the total amount, the researchers looked at the type of plant-based foods consumed. Healthy plant-based products were mostly the least processed foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and tea / coffee. Unhealthy plant-based products consisted of juices, sweetened drinks, refined grains, potatoes, and all kinds of sweets, such as chocolate or traditional desserts.

The study looked at the relationship between the amount and quality of plant foods and heart health over a 10-year period. In 2001 and 2002, scientists randomly selected a sample of adults living in Athens who did not have cardiovascular disease or other chronic diseases. The current analysis was carried out on 146 overweight participants with normal blood pressure, blood lipids and blood sugar. The diet was assessed using a questionnaire on the habits customary in the previous year. The research team then listed 156 vegetarian foods and beverages commonly consumed in Greece.

Study results

holding ripe tomato with rubber gloves

Within a decade, nearly half of the overweight study participants had developed high blood pressure, high blood lipids, and high blood sugar. This is a combination that is particularly risky for heart health. Men who consumed more plant-based foods were less likely to have this decline in health. Such a trend was also observed in women, but did not reach statistical significance. In terms of the quality of plant-based foods, healthier choices have been linked to maintaining normal blood pressure, blood fat, and sugar levels.

Raw meat forms a question mark in an empty plate

Conversely, eating unhealthy plant-based foods has been linked to the development of high blood pressure, high blood lipids, and high blood sugar. These relationships were stronger in women than in men. The authors of the study suggest that less meat is especially beneficial for heart health when it is replaced with nutritious plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil. The team found that the analysis was only performed on obese individuals and the results should not be extended to other weight classes.

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