Study: For Heart Health Benefits of Plant-Based Diet, Avoid Junk Food

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People following a plant-based diet while also frequently eating unhealthy foods, such as sweets, juices and refined grains, showed no heart health benefits compared to those not following a plant-based diet, according to a scientific release from the American College of Cardiology (ACC).

Researchers tracked the diets and development of cardiovascular disease of 2,000 Greek participants over a 10-year period through questionnaires. Participants were organized into three groups: those who ate meat-based diets; those  who ate healthy plant-based diets; and those who ate unhealthy plant-based diets.

Healthy plant-based diets included higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, oils, and tea or coffee; unhealthy plant-based diets included higher consumption of juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, and sweets.

The finding: Only the participants in the healthy plant-based group showed significant reduction in cardiovascular risk. 

“Based on these results, it seems that simply following a plant-based or vegetarian diet is not enough to reduce cardiovascular disease risk,” lead study author Demosthenes Panagiotakos, Ph.D., of Harokopio University in Athens, Greece, said in the release. 

Differences between eating patterns and subsequent risk for cardiovascular disease were also observed between men and women. Women showed more dramatic risk from eating unhealthy plant-based diets and more reduction in risk when eating healthy plant-based diets compared to men, according to the release.

Panagitoakos summarized the findings by saying, “In the future, I believe it will be useful if cardiovascular disease prevention guidelines offer clearer and specific nutrition suggestions, in terms of the types of foods that are recommended and the portions that should be consumed.” 

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Although the study was limited by its reliance on questionnaires, the release suggested that the evidence could be helpful for consumers who are trying to healthfully navigate a plant-based diet.

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