Plant-based diets may have advantages for both your waistline and your general well-being, but new research suggests that the foods you choose matter most for receiving the healthful benefits of plant-based nutrition.
The Perks of Plant-Based Diets
Large, population-based studies continue to find links with health benefits for those who follow vegetarian or vegan diets. For example, research suggests that on average, those who choose plant-based diets are less likely to be overweight than omnivores (1). Other research has linked a plant-based eating pattern with better weight management and improved long-term health (2, 3). Considering these positive research findings, it’s easy to wonder if vegetarian or vegan options are always a healthier choice.
One challenge with studying vegetarian diets is that all plant-based foods are often grouped together in the same category. Nutrition researchers agree that not all plant foods should be treated equally, but few studies have been designed to distinguish between healthful and unhealthful plant-based food choices.
A Closer Look at Plant-Based Foods
A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology aimed to address this question by comparing the long-term effects of healthful and unhealthful plant-based foods (4). Using information from large, population-based nutrition and health surveys, the researchers separated study participants’ food choices into three categories: healthful plant foods, less healthful plant foods, and animal foods.
Healthful plant foods included whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and peas while less healthful plant foods included choices like sugary juices, refined grains, fried potatoes, sweets, and desserts. The animal foods category represented a typical omnivore diet and included less healthful choices such as processed or cured meats and other foods high in saturated fats.
After statistically controlling for a variety of factors like smoking or physical activity that independently influence health, the researchers identified links between long-term health and the different diets.
As you might expect, a diet rich in healthful plant foods was associated with a lower risk for health concerns over time. It was also clear that unhealthful plant-based diets did not contribute to well-being. The researchers found little difference between an unhealthful vegetarian diet and a typical omnivore diet. These diets were both associated with greater risks for long-term health.
In this study, the nutritional quality of food choices was the most important factor in long-term health benefits.
Smart Choices Matter
Vegetarian and vegan diets may not be the right choice for everyone, but this study suggests that anyone can enjoy the advantages of plant-based nutrition by simply making more healthful food choices. In their analysis, the researchers found that the more healthful plant foods in a person’s diet, the better it was for long-term health.
- Spencer EA, Appleby PN, Davey GK, Key TJ. Diet and body mass index in 38000 EPIC-Oxford meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Jun;27(6):728-34.
- Tonstad S, Stewart K, Oda K, Batech M, Herring RP, Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets and incidence of diabetes in the Adventist Health Study-2. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2013 Apr;23(4):292-9.
- Dinu M, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A, Sofi F. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: a systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2016 Feb; 6:0.
- Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Spiegelman D, Chiuve SE, Manson JE, Willett W, Rexrode KM, Rimm EB, Hu FB. Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017 Jul 25;70(4):411-422.