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Healthy Versus Unhealthy Plant-Based Diets

healthy plant based diet

The term “plant-based” is all the rage right now. We hear and read about the benefits of eating a plant-based diet, but do you really understand what that means? In general, a plant-based diet is one that limits or avoids animal products. Plant-based diets that focus on vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and limit the intake of animal products lead to better health outcomes. But what about those who avoid animal products, but eat mostly pasta and French fries? Is that diet healthier than one that includes animal products?

A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that diets high in less healthy plant foods and those high in animal foods are associated with an increased risk of chronic disease, including coronary artery disease. In the study, the researchers compiled data from two Nurses Health Studies and from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. In total, they analyzed data from over 150,000 participants who recorded their health behaviors and medical histories. The researchers then created three diet indices. The first was the overall plant-based diet index, which gave a positive score for plant foods and a negative score for animal foods. The second diet index was the healthy plant-based index. This one awarded positive scores to whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, oils, tea and coffee and negative scores for animal foods and unhealthy plant foods (juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, fries and sweets). The final index was the unhealthy plant-based diet, which gave positive scores for the unhealthy plant foods and negative scores for the healthy plant and animal foods.

What did the researchers find? Increased intake of a plant-based diet consisting of the healthier plant foods was associated with substantially lower coronary heart disease risk. But, cutting out animal products did not automatically lead to lower heart disease risk. Rather, this study found that a plant-based diet rich in the less-healthy plant foods was actually associated with higher coronary heart disease risk.

Bottom Line: Not all plant-based diets are created equal. A healthy plant-based diet consists of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and protein from beans, nuts and whole soy products. This diet leads to great health benefits. A diet that skips animal products, but is heavy on the refined carbohydrates does not.

Written by: Abby Cannon, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern

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