Posted on Jul 30, 2019, 2 p.m.
Hardly a day goes by without hearing a celebrity or scientist claiming veganism and plant based diets have benefits. But is this really true, is a plant based diet as healthy as all the hype?
It really does seem as if plant based diets are the way to go, as recently Harvard scientists conducted a study adding to the growing body of evidence concluding that those who followed a healthier plant based diet had a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes following analysis of over 300,000 people.
This study published in JAMA Internal Medicine compared consumption of unhealthy plant based food including white flour, sugar, and potatoes with consumption of healthier plant based foods such as nuts, fruits, and vegetables; results found that those with the highest adherence to a healthier plant based diet has a 23% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Senior author Qi Sun, said: “Overall, these data highlighted the importance of adhering to plant-based diets to achieve or maintain good health, and people should choose fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, tofu, and other healthy plant foods as the cornerstone of such diets.”
Plant based diets consist largely of foods from plant sources like fruits, grains, and vegetables. Veganism is most likely the most recognisable form of this diet, but plant based diets come in many forms. Just to name a few: Flexitarian includes occasionally eating meat, and poultry; Pescetarians eat shellfish and fish; and Lacto-vegetarians avoid all forms of meat but can eat dairy.
This study has been met with some cautious optimism such as Alex White from the Britich Nutrition Foundation who says, “The studies included in this review were observational so they cannot prove a causal link between plant-based diets and diabetes, but this does add to the body of evidence showing that eating more healthy, plant-based foods has a range of health benefits.”
Others are saying more evidence is needed such as Dr Emily Burns, Head of Research Communications at Diabetes UK, says: “We also know that specific foods in healthy plant-based diets such fruits, vegetables and wholegrains have been associated with reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes. However, more research is needed to fully understand how plant-based diets are beneficial in helping people minimise their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and who is more likely to benefit from this approach.”
Baldeesh Rai of Heart UK, says: “A well planned vegan or vegetarian diet, that includes plenty of whole plant foods ( in contrast to processed vegetarian foods), is likely to be lower in saturated fat and rich in unsaturated fats, plant fibres and plant proteins all of which help promote healthy levels of cholesterol. A vegan diet also has the advantage of containing no dietary cholesterol as cholesterol is found only in animal foods but it is important to ensure all nutrient needs are being met."
Tracy Parker of the British Heart Foundation, says: “We’ve seen a surge in plant-based diets in recent years, but they’re not just a passing craze. These diets – such as the Mediterranean-style diet – are linked to reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart and circulatory diseases. But, as is the case with any diet, the health benefits are dependent on its quality. Replacing animal foods with unhealthy choices like fruit juices, refined grains or chips and sweetened foods won’t reduce your heart disease risk.”
According to Bahee Van de Bor of BDA, “The ideal plant-based diet for a family should include starting the day with iron and vitamin B 12 fortified breakfast bowls of cereal as well as calcium-fortified plant drinks," she says. "For the main meals choose from calcium-set tofu, beans that could be used to prepare a curry, stew, burgers or salads as well as nuts and seeds providing protein, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. And don't forget to include a good range of carbohydrates and vegetables for energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
"Stick to oils like olive, rapeseed or hemp in cooking and in salads, as these provide a good mix of heart-healthy fats. Hemp is particularly rich in omega-three fatty acids.
“Snacks should be based on fruit, hummus or other dips prepared with beans and tahini, nuts or baked goods using these ingredients if you need the extra calories.”
According to Baldeeshi Rai, “Most nutrients are abundantly available in plant-based diets, but if you are avoiding or minimising your consumption of animal-derived foods there are a few nutrients you need to pay attention to. These include calcium (for those not eating dairy foods), omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, zinc and selenium.”
“Try to choose plant proteins that are closer to their natural origins like nuts, seeds, beans and legumes, over heavily processed vegan sausages or burgers that can be high in saturated fat, low in fibre, vitamins and minerals." says Van de Bor.
General consensus is that the health benefits of following a plant based diet are bountiful, but experts stress to ensure the diet remains healthy and balanced, while avoiding unhealthy and greasy foods that are sometimes misleadingly marketed as being healthy. For those who are going to be implementing serious changes to their diet, it is recommended to consult with your doctor to help set out the best plan for you, especially for feeding children as special precautions need to be taken.
“Children following a vegan lifestyle could be at risk of malnourishment if their diet isn't carefully balanced for important nutrients such as essential fatty acids, calcium, iron, iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin D," says Van de Bor. “Plant-based diets can also be bulky for children so it's important to make sure that they do receive enough protein and overall calories they need to grow.”
As there are many forms of plant based diets ranging from full on veganism to vegetarianism it gives you options to experiment with to find the one that best suits you. Following a plant based diet does not mean that you have to completely exclude animal derived foods, it could just mean a more flexitarian approach while keeping the greater portion of the diet plant based.
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This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement.