A position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics highlights the health benefits of vegetarian diets in reducing the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer, compared with non-vegetarian diets, reports Medical News Today.
Updating their 2009 position on plant-based diets, the Academy say an “appropriately planned” vegetarian or vegan diet is suitable for “all stages of the life cycle,” and adopting such diets in childhood can reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life. Additionally, the paper says plant-based diets are more environmentally friendly and sustainable than diets rich in animal products, noting that they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50%.
“Becoming vegetarian can be beneficial to personal health and the environment,” says Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The report says while a vegetarian diet is widely perceived as a diet that simply excludes meat, poultry, and fish, there are many variations. These include a lacto-vegetarian diet (devoid of meat, poultry, and fish, but includes dairy products) and a pescatarian diet (excludes meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs, but allows fish). A vegan diet excludes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and animal-derived products. It may also exclude honey.
A number of studies have hailed the health benefits of a plant-based diet, which include a lower risk of obesity and diabetes. But some studies have suggested that vegetarian diets may do more harm than good.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics say, however, that a “well-planned” plant-based diet – high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains – can offer a wealth of health benefits.
The report says for the new study – written by nutritionist Susan Levin of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC, and co-authors – the Academy reviewed a variety of studies looking at the effects of plant-based diets on health and the environment.
From the evidence to date, the authors say adopting a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of prostate cancer by 35%, while overall cancer risk can be reduced by 18%.
In terms of heart health, the Academy say a plant-based diet can lower the risk of heart attack by 32% and the risk of heart disease by 10%-29%. Furthermore, the authors say the risk of type 2 diabetes may be reduced by 62% with a plant-based diet.
“People who adopt vegetarian diets have lower body mass indexes [BMIs], better control of blood pressure and blood glucose, less inflammation and lower cholesterol levels compared with non-vegetarians,” notes Sheth. “Registered dietitian nutritionists can help people who want to follow a vegetarian eating plan in any life stage to make well-informed choices to achieve these benefits.”
According to the report, the paper notes that a plant-based diet in childhood and adolescence may have significant benefits for current and later-life health. The authors point to studies that have shown children and adolescents with a vegetarian diet are less likely to be overweight or obese than their meat-eating counterparts. “Children and adolescents with BMI values in the normal range are more likely to also be within the normal range as adults, resulting in significant disease risk reduction,” they add.
It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease. Vegans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements.
Vesanto Melina, Winston Craig, Susan Levin