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Men, say no to junk food: Plant-based diet reduces risk of heart disease

People who eat sweets, refined grains and juices show no heart health benefit.

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Last Updated: Mar 21, 2020, 09.46 AM IST
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Simply following a vegetarian diet may not be enough to reduce cardiovascular disease.
LONDON: Simply following a vegetarian diet may not be enough to reduce cardiovascular disease risk as the health benefits of plant-based diets depend largely on the specific foods consumed, according to a study.

The research suggests that people following a plant-based diet who frequently consumed less-healthful foods like sweets, refined grains and juice showed no heart health benefit compared with those who did not eat a plant-based diet.

"Based on these results, it seems that simply following a plant-based or vegetarian diet is not enough to reduce cardiovascular disease risk," said Demosthenes Panagiotakos, a professor at Harokopio University of Athens in Greece.

"It is also important to focus on specific, healthful plant-based food groups to see a benefit in terms of reducing cardiovascular disease," Panagiotakos said.

Researchers tracked eating behaviour and the development of heart disease among more than 2,000 Greek adults over a 10-year period, beginning in 2002.

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Snacking on healthful foods can be beneficial while snacking on unhealthful foods can bring higher risks.

Participants were asked to complete a detailed food frequency survey at the time of enrolment, after five years and after 10 years.

The researchers analysed the relationship between diet and the development of cardiovascular disease using a dietary index that divided participants into three groups based on the number of animal-based foods they consumed per day.

Men eating fewer animal-based foods were 25 per cent less likely to develop heart disease compared to men eating more animal-based foods, the researchers found.

The same trend was seen in women, but the relationship was less strong, with an overall risk reduction of about 11 per cent among women eating the fewest animal-based foods, they said.

"These findings highlight that even a small reduction in the daily consumption of animal-based products - principally the less healthy foods, such as processed meat products - accompanied by an increase in healthy plant-based foods may contribute to better cardiovascular health," Panagiotakos said.

The researchers then categorised each participant's diet as either healthful - reflecting increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, oils and tea or coffee - or unhealthful, which meant increased consumption of juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes and sweets.

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Only participants following a healthful plant-based diet had a significant reduction in cardiovascular risk compared to those who ate more animal-based products, according to the study.

Women showed a more dramatic increase in heart disease risk when eating an unhealthful plant-based diet and a more dramatic reduction in risk when eating a healthful plant-based diet compared to men who fell into the same two categories.

This suggests that snacking on healthful foods can be beneficial while snacking on unhealthful foods can bring higher risks, Panagiotakos said.

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