Scientific research on vegetarianism: healthy or harmful
The body as a temple of the soul: vegetarianism is not just a way of living and thinking but also an effective therapy for cardiovascular disease. A plant-based diet improves health outcomes in patients with heart disease, new research says. People at high risk of cardiovascular disease who follow a vegetarian diet for 6 months show significant reductions in body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose. Is it worth giving up a juicy chop in favor of health?
A new study published in the scientific JAMA Network Open publication proves the vascular and heart benefits of plant-based diets for both healthy people and patients with type 2 diabetes and other cardiovascular diseases. Researchers see reductions in glycated hemoglobin, cholesterol and blood pressure in patients with type 2 diabetes.
"Vegetarian diets have potential protective and synergistic effects for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease," the researchers asserted.
The researchers identified 20 random trials involving vegetarian diets that included 1,878 adults at high risk of cardiovascular disease for the meta-analysis. The average age of the participants ranged from 28 to 64 years.
The trials included patients with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and people with at least two cardiovascular risk factors. The studies were conducted in the US, Asia, Europe and New Zealand between 1990 and 2021. The average duration of the vegetarian diet ranged from 2 to 24 months.
Researchers used 3 types of vegetarian diets: vegan with plant foods only, lacto-vegetarian that excludes meat, poultry and seafood but allows dairy products and eggs and lacto-vegetarian with plant and dairy products only.
Do more vegetables mean less medication? Scientific evaluation of plant-based diets
Overall, those who followed the vegetarian diet for 6 months had significantly greater reductions in cholesterol, blood glucose and systolic blood pressure compared to standard therapy.
Lacto-vegetarian diets including dairy products and eggs showed the greatest reduction in cholesterol levels (14.1 mg/dL). The authors note that vegetarian diets were most effective in achieving glycemic control in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as weight loss in high-risk cardiovascular disease patients and diabetics.
"Research suggests that a plant-based diet may enhance the effects of optimal drug therapy for the prevention and treatment of several cardiometabolic diseases," the authors write.
Although most patients were taking medications to treat hypertension, hyperglycemia and/or dyslipidemia, the vegetarian diet resulted in lower medication doses. Researchers also suggest that medication use may mask the favorable effects of the vegetarian diet:
"Those patients who did not take medications in the trials showed more optimal systolic blood pressure and cholesterol levels," they write.
Not all vegetarian diets are healthy
While there are many variations of vegetarian diets from vegan diets that eliminate all animal foods to pesco-vegetarian diets that allow fish or seafood, most are well-balanced and can provide health benefits.
A balanced vegetarian diet is high in dietary fiber, mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, potassium, magnesium and phytochemicals and has lower glycemic index values.
It should be noted that researchers emphasize the low-fat content recorded in 12 studies, which the authors believe may have contributed to the improvements in cholesterol values. In particular, lacto-vegetarian diets were associated with the greatest reduction in cholesterol levels.
However, not all vegetarian diets are healthy, the researchers said. For example, deep-fried vegetables lose their benefits as they contain trans fats and lots of salt. Whole plant foods with minimal processing are most beneficial for cardiovascular health," the researchers asserted.
Can a vegetarian diet become a way of life? Is a plant-based diet better used cyclically to improve cardiovascular health outcomes? These questions have yet to be answered as vegetarian diets are low in animal protein, fat and iron, which are essential for optimal body function.