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Plant Power: The Latest Health Research Rooting For Plant-Based

Plant-based diets have come a long way in the minds of consumers, who are increasingly aware of this emerging food category and its associated benefits on planetary and human health. What was once considered a niche lifestyle choice, plant-based diets have gained huge traction and are now deeply rooted into mainstream dietary habits.

A variety of factors continue to propel plant-centric diets forward, with environmental, animal-welfare and health concerns being the most prevalent. In recent years, consumer interest on the latter has intensified, as the post-pandemic era brought renewed focus on health, wellness and nutrition, prompting many to rethink their food choices. A joint survey of 3,700 respondents across seven countries by Blue Horizon and Boston Consulting Group even revealed that for approximately 75% of respondents, having a healthier diet is the primary motivator to start consuming alternative proteins – sources of protein derived from plants and other non-traditional sources that serve as a substitute to traditional animal-based proteins.

And why? Well, the health benefits of a plant-rich diet have never been clearer. Academic research continues to give us compelling reasons to fill-up on plant-based goodness. Just last month, a comprehensive umbrella review consolidating data from 48 meta-analyses over 20 years revealed that individuals following a vegan or vegetarian diet can enjoy benefits such as improved heart health, reduced cancer risk, better weight management, reduced inflammation and longevity. What’s not to like?

We delved into some of the latest research to get a clearer view on the profound health benefits arising from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.

Plant-based protein sources are associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes rates are rapidly rising worldwide. Most recent data from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) Atlas reported that 10.5% of the adult population (20-79 years), or 537 million people have diabetes, and by 2045, projections show that 1 in 8 adults (approximately 783 million), will be living with diabetes – a whopping increase of 46%. This sparks huge cause for concern as the disease in itself creates a serious burden and is a major risk factor for cardiovascular and kidney disease, cancer and dementia. A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition analyzed the health data of 216,695 Americans for up to 36 years and found red meat consumption – processed or unprocessed – to be strongly linked with higher risk of the disease. In fact, participants eating the most red meat were 62% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those consuming the least. Each additional daily serving of processed and unprocessed red meat brought a 46% and 24% greater risk of developing the disease, respectively. The study provides huge support in favor of plant-based diets, revealing that participants who substituted a daily serving of red meat with a serving of plant-based proteins actually reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 30%.

Improved insulin sensitivity for the 9 million type 1 diabetes patients worldwide

 While 90% of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, type 1 still affects 9 million people worldwide and is troublesome due to its unpreventability and the lifelong requirement for insulin management. Recently though, research around the effects of dietary intervention on insulin requirements and glycemic control in type 1 diabetes patients has surfaced, including one 12-week randomized clinical trial conducted with 58 adults all diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two dietary groups, with one being a low-fat plant-based diet with no restrictions on carbohydrates, and the other being a portion-controlled carbohydrate diet. Adults in the former group were encouraged to consume vegetables, fruits and legumes while those in the latter adhered to personalized eating plans that focused on reducing daily energy intake to 1,000 calories per day with carbohydrate intake maintained. After 12-weeks, results published by the American Diabetes Association revealed that type 1 diabetes patients following a low-fat vegan diet showed greater reductions in body weight and daily insulin dose as well as increased insulin sensitivity. In addition, the low-fat vegan group showed more significant drops in both total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels, or more commonly known as the “bad” cholesterol. The study detailed that increased carbohydrate and fiber intake positively influence insulin sensitivity, providing important evidence in favor of low-fat plant-based diets high in fiber and carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat. As diabetes cases are projected to rise, so too are the costs of insulin, with historical data showing the cost of the drug triple between 2002 and 2013. A diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes can therefore offer patients a cost-effective way to manage the condition.

Plants can make the heart happier in just 8-weeks

Abundant in essential nutrients, antioxidants and dietary fiber, plants can work wonders for our cardiovascular health – and quickly too. The benefits of plant-based diets for cardiovascular health have been widely proven. One small but powerful clinical trial recently caught our attention for exploring the cardiovascular effects of a healthy omnivorous versus a healthy plant-based diet among 22 identical adult twin pairs. The findings, published in Stanford Medicine, revealed that those consuming a healthy, plant-based diet enjoyed a significant protective cardiometabolic advantage in just 8-weeks. Specifically, LDL-C levels (which should be below 100 mg/DL), were seen to decrease to a healthy level among the plant-based group, from 110.7 mg/dL at the start of the trial, down to 95.5mg/dL by the end. Omnivores on the other hand, saw a much smaller reduction, from 118.5 mg/dL to 116.1 mg/dL. This just goes to show that the long-term health benefits of incorporating more plants into one’s diet can be seen very quickly – from as early as 8-weeks.

Guarding our kidneys with greens

 Our kidneys play a crucial role in maintaining the proper functioning of various bodily systems, yet with the growing prevalence of diabetes, obesity, hypertension and the likes, chronic kidney disease (CKD) is becoming more common. Once again, plants offer us a great deal of hope in this department, with evidence accumulating around the positive correlation between plant-based diets and reduced risk of CKD. One study, published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases (AJKD) explored the effect of plant-proteins on the disease among a large cohort of 117,809 people over one decade. Lead authors stated that “plant-based proteins offer several advantages over animal-derived foods for the kidneys, including a lower acid load, reduced saturated fat content, rich fiber content and antioxidant properties.” Similarly, a study analyzing 2,539 participants with CKD, found that participants with the greatest adherence to an ‘overall’ and ‘healthy’ plant-based diet enjoyed a 26% and 21% lower risk of all-cause mortality, respectively, providing great actionable nutrition guidance for CKD patients to boost well-being.

Antioxidants and anti-inflammatories to nourish our brains

Late last year, a review published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that the role of diet in altering the risk of developing neurodegenerative disorder, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) was stark. The findings showed that tanking up on vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruits did indeed reduce the likelihood of developing the disorder due to their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. By contrast to the Western diet, diets rich in plants, such as the Mediterranean diet, are noted as having reduced risk of developing the disorder. Interestingly, in countries such as Japan, China and India where the Western-style diet is increasingly being adopted, researchers found growing rates of Alzheimer’s. The review goes an extra mile by unveiling which foods offer a protective barrier against the disorder, namely, leafy green vegetables, nuts, omega-3 fatty acids and whole grains. Most notably, meat, and especially red meat was found to significantly increase the risk of developing the neurodegenerative disorder, largely due to its negative effects on inflammation, insulin resistance, oxidative stress and more, all of which are risk factors connected to AD. Lead authors explain that animal proteins do not contain the anti-inflammatory components and antioxidant ingredients found in whole foods, which actually help to lower the risk of dementia.

Immune boosting properties to fight off viral infections

The abundance of antioxidants, phytosterols and polyphenols in plant-rich diets are known to boost our immune systems and fight off nasty viral infections. Many studies have suggested that diet can play an important role in the evolution of such infections and the factors that increase risk of its associated complications. One observational study among 702 adults specifically explored the role of plant-based dietary patterns on the incidence, severity and duration of COVID-19. Published in the British Medical Journal: Nutrition Prevention and Health, findings revealed that while no difference in symptom severity between those predominantly following a plant-based or vegetarian diet versus omnivores was evident and the former were 39% less likely to become infected with the virus.

Governments are seeing the power of plants in boosting societal health

Historically, countries have failed to showcase the immense benefits of plant-based diets on human health in their national dietary guidelines. A study published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition even revealed that only 40% of dietary guidelines assessed from 100 countries contained information and recommendations on vegetarian and vegan diets. However, as evidence continues to mount, governments are increasingly recognizing the power of plants in bettering societal health and are altering national dietary guidelines accordingly. As a recent example, The German Society for Nutrition (DGE)’s update suggested that a “health-promoting and ecologically sustainable diet” comprises more than 75% of plant-based foods and less than a quarter of animal-derived foods. In fact, the guideline recommends halving meat consumption to no more than 300 grams per week, while limiting dairy intake to 500g per day.

Plant-based meat and dairy analogues ease the transition to a plant-rich diet

Curating this compelling evidence into actionable insights for consumers within national dietary guidelines can succeed in enticing more consumers to adopt plant-rich diets. Germany is now home to Europe’s largest group of flexitarians, estimated at 40-55% of the total population. Yet many people still struggle to make the switch, which stresses the need for plant-based meat and dairy analogues to help consumers make direct swaps and easily center meals around plants. With only 45% of national dietary guidelines mentioning plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy, fostering greater support and inclusion of alternative proteins will be critical in transitioning society towards health-conscious eating habits.

Source: LikeMeat