Plant-based diets: should you, or shouldn’t you?

A study published last week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology has gotten quite a bit of attention, with press release titles such as “Some Plant-Based Diets May Increase Heart Disease Risk.”

Plant-based diets have gotten a lot of attention in the past few years, from the perspective of the environment, animal rights, and health. It is pretty safe to say that plant-based diets (i.e., vegetarian, vegan, or those that significantly reduce animal food intake) are better for the environment and that eating less meat reduces the use of cruel animal practices such as factory farming. However, from a health perspective, could plant-based diets do more harm than good, as the press release above suggests?

The answer is (SURPRISE!) it depends on the quality of the diet being followed. In the study referenced above, Dr. Ambika Satija and colleagues divided plant-based diets into three categories:

1.     One emphasizing the consumption of all plant food and reducing (but not entirely eliminating) animal food intake

2.     A “healthful” plant-based diet emphasizing the intake of healthy plant foods (i.e., whole grains, fruits, and vegetables)

3.     An “unhealthful” plant-based diet emphasizing the consumption of less healthy plant foods (e.g., refined grains, potatoes/French fries, sweets)

Data were taken from a large, well-known study sample.

Results of the study confirmed that overall, following a plant-based diet was associated with a lower risk of heart disease. This is unsurprising.

However, what is important is that greater adherence to a plant-based diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables was associated with a lower risk of heart disease; whereas, a plant-based diet emphasizing less healthy vegetarian options (e.g., sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, sweets) was associated with a higher risk of heart disease.

The take-home message: if you want to have a positive impact on the environment and your health, make sure your diet doesn’t just reduce (or eliminate) animal foods. Relying too heavily on vegetarian options that simply exclude meat, such as white bread/pasta, potatoes, and processed baked goods, may well reduce animal cruelty, but won’t necessarily improve your future health. Instead, make sure you consciously add in healthy vegetarian options. Some ways to do this:

  • Choose whole grains instead of refined (white/processed) grains whenever possible
  • Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and throw extra veggies into your dishes 
  • Choose plant-based sources of protein and fibre (e.g., beans, chickpeas, lentils) and fat (e.g., avocado, nuts).

This can be easier than you'd think, and doesn't have to involve super elaborate meals. Think: avocado and tomato on whole-wheat toast, skin-on baked potato or sweet potato with baked beans and a side of vegetable soup, or a simple cashew stir fry.

 Skin-on sweet potato with kidney beans and avocado

Skin-on sweet potato with kidney beans and avocado

Going vegetarian (or vegan) is a very personal decision. Personally, although I'm not a vegetarian, I’ve never been a big red meat eater. However, I have always relied on poultry and fish as my sources of protein. Lately, in an effort to steer my diet towards a more plant-based one, I’ve been trying to incorporate more plant-based proteins such as beans and chickpeas into my recipes.

My new motto is to try to think of “meat as a treat” (plus, it rhymes!). This will help me, for example, to more frequently choose the veggie wrap rather than my go-to chicken wrap when grabbing lunch, while still letting me occasionally “indulge” in animal-based foods that I love, such as roast chicken or baked salmon (which is delicious and fresh here on the northwest coast of France!).

 Remember: plant-based meals don't have to be fancy or elaborate to be delicious!

Remember: plant-based meals don't have to be fancy or elaborate to be delicious!

Have you ever tried a predominantly plant-based diet? What are your thoughts or strategies? Let us know in the comments!

Finally, since you're probably thinking about what to make for dinner after all this talk of food, this Moroccan-style vegetable couscous is a delicious vegetable-hardy meal that I made last week. The leftovers lasted almost all week, and unlike most dishes, I never got sick of it! It’s super well spiced and full of yummy veggies. To improve the fibre content even further, you can substitute the couscous with quinoa or brown rice.

 Moroccan-style vegetable couscous

Moroccan-style vegetable couscous

Happy cooking!

xox

Sam

Source: Satija A et al. 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. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2017.05.047.