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  • A new study has found that plant-based diets are linked with better health.
  • People eating vegetarian and vegan diets had a lower risk for heart disease and cancer.
  • They were also less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
  • Plant-based diets are low in cholesterol and saturated fat, but high in nutrients.
  • A flexitarian diet composed of whole foods may be the best plant-based diet.

A new scientific literature review has found that vegetarian and vegan diets help improve cardiometabolic risk factors, such as elevated lipids, blood sugar, body weight, BMI, and inflammation.

The individuals studied also had a lower risk of ischemic heart disease and gastrointestinal and prostate cancers.

The authors of the study, which was published on May 15, 2024, in the journal PLOS ONE, further stated that people who ate vegetarian diets were at reduced risk for dying from cardiovascular disease.

They did note, however, that pregnant people eating vegetarian diets did not appear to have any difference in their risk of developing gestational diabetes and high blood pressure.

The authors wrote that prior studies have shown that diets low in plant foods and high in meat, refined grains, sugar, and salt are associated with a greater risk of death.

They said this suggests that eating a more plant-based diet should have the opposite effect, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

To see whether this assumption held up, the researchers examined 48 papers published over a 23-year span.

They selected papers that dealt with plant-based diets and their effects on cardiovascular health and cancer risk.

They used an umbrella review approach, taking data from all the studies and analyzing it.

This method is unique in that it only uses the highest-level evidence, which is other systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

When they analyzed the two decades of compiled data, they found that the association between vegetarian and vegan diets and reduced cardiometabolic risk factors was quite strong.

The research team conceded, however, that the study had some limitations, such as variations in the exact diet followed, patient demographics, and study length.

Dr. Libbat Shaham, a board certified family physician with Medical Offices of Manhattan and contributor to LabFinder.com, who was not involved in the study, commented on the study, explaining that the observed improvements in health may come down to what plant-based diets don’t contain: cholesterol and high levels of saturated fat.

“Cholesterol and saturated fat over time are what lead to damage to, and obstruction in, blood vessels — the cause of heart attacks and strokes,” she explained.

Shaham went on to say that saturated fat is mostly found in animal foods and is solid at room temperature.

“Cholesterol is made in the liver,” she added. “Plants don’t have livers. Animals do.”

Dr. Sarah Bonza, a board certified physician specializing in family medicine and lifestyle medicine, who was not involved in the study, added that plant-based diets also may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases because of what they do contain, which are vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber.

“Fruits, vegetables, whole grain, legumes, nuts, and seeds … all contain vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that benefit people’s health,” she said. “With these meal plans, one may expect fewer inflammations and improved heart and immune health.”

Bonza additionally pointed out that the fiber in plant foods helps speed up the digestion process and keeps the gut microbiome healthy.

While the study looked at vegetarian and vegan diets, Faith Krisht, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who was not involved in the study, advises that the best way to eat plant-based is to follow a flexitarian diet.

“Research shows that vegan and vegetarian diets are often deficient in essential fatty acids such as EPA and DHA, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and iodine,” she said. “These are all important nutrients for human health.”

A flexitarian diet — which focuses on eating mainly plant-based proteins while occasionally adding animal-based proteins — helps ensure that you are getting all the vital nutrients that you need.

Krisht also recommends eating a diet that is high in whole foods rather than one that is high in refined and ultra-processed foods.

“This means a diet that is rich in whole grains, beans, lentils, vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts, minimally processed animal proteins,” she said.

According to Krisht, this ensures that you get plenty of healthy fiber and antioxidants while also avoiding added sugars, which can increase your risk of chronic disease.

Krisht said a simple way to add more plant-based foods to your diet is to incorporate them into meals you already enjoy.

“Add black beans to your taco meat or in a quesadilla, add chickpeas to your curry, throw some edamame into your stir-fry, add pumpkin seeds to your morning oatmeal,” she suggested. You can start small and work your way up to more.

Krisht said that one thing she likes to do is keep a variety of seeds on hand, such as sesame, sunflower, chia, flax, hemp, and pumpkin.

These can easily be added to yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, salads, baked goods, and even regular meals.

“You can also try adding various whole grains to your white rice such as farro, quinoa, or wild rice,” she said.

Over 20 years of studies have found that plant-based diets can improve cardiometabolic health and help prevent cancer.

Experts say this is because plant foods are low in cholesterol and saturated fats while being high in other desirable nutrients like vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber.

The best plant-based diet may be one that is well-rounded in nutrients due to occasional meat intake. It should also be filled with whole foods.

To start eating more plant-based foods, start slowly and try incorporating them into your current diet.