Vegetarian and vegan diets benefit the heart and the climate

An investigation in which the results of 30 scientific trials published between 1980 and 2022 involving 2,372 people have been analyzed has revealed that the vegetarian and vegan diets relate to lower levels of cholesterol and fats in the bloodwhich prevents blockage of the arteries and reduces the chances of developing cardiovascular diseasessuch as a myocardial infarction or a cerebrovascular accident.

The researchers compared the effect of vegetarian or vegan diets with that of omnivorous diets on levels of all types of cholesterol (total cholesterol), low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol (popularly known as ‘bad’ cholesterol), triglycerides (a type of fat or lipid present in the blood) and apoprotein B (apoB, a protein that helps carry fat and cholesterol in the blood and is an indicator of the total amount of bad fats and cholesterol in the body).

High LDL cholesterol levels cause fatty deposits to build up in your blood vessels, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. The results of the meta-analysis have been published in European Heart Journal and its main conclusions show that vegetarian and vegan diets can:

  • Reduce bad cholesterol by 10%.
  • Reduce total cholesterol by 7%.
  • Reduce apolipoprotein B (the main protein of bad cholesterol) by 14%.

“We found that vegetarian and vegan diets were associated with a 14% reduction in all artery-clogging lipoproteins as indicated by apoliprotein B. This corresponds to one-third the effect of taking cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins. , and would result in a 7% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease in someone who maintained a plant-based diet for five years. Statin treatment is superior to plant-based diets in lowering fat and cholesterol levels. However, one regime does not exclude the other, and it is likely that the combining statins with plant-based diets have a synergistic effect”, explained Professor Ruth Frikke-Schmidtchief physician at the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, who carried out the study together with Ms Caroline Amalie Koch, a medical student, and Dr Emilie Westerlin Kjeldsen, also from the Rigshospitalet.

“Plant-based diets are key instruments for shifting food production to more environmentally sustainable ways and reducing the burden of cardiovascular disease”

“If people start eating vegetarian or vegan diets from a young age, the potential to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease caused by blocked arteries is substantial. It is important to highlight that we found similar results in all continents, ages, different ranges of body mass index and among people in different states of health”, added the researcher.

Food, key to protecting health and the environment

Individuals who participated in the 30 studies were randomly assigned to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet or continue to eat an omnivorous diet (including meat and dairy products). The duration of these eating patterns ranged from 10 days to five years, with an average of 29 weeks.

Compared with people on an omnivorous diet, those on a plant-based diet experienced an average 7% decrease in total cholesterol levels from levels measured at the start of the studies, a 10-fold reduction % in LDL cholesterol levels and a 14% reduction in apoB levels. “We observed significant effects from vegetarian and vegan diets and from people ranging from normal weight to obese,” said Professor Frikke-Schmidt.

The researchers also found that plant-based diets had a beneficial impact on the environment. “Recent systematic reviews have shown that if populations in high-income countries switch to plant-based diets, this can reduce net emissions greenhouse gases between 35% and 49%. Our study provides strong evidence that plant-based diets are good for the health of people of different weights, ages and health conditions,” said Professor Frikke-Schmidt.

“In addition, populations around the world are aging and, as a consequence, the cost of treating age-related diseases, such as atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, is increasing. Plant-based diets are key instruments for shifting food production to more environmentally sustainable ways while reducing the burden of cardiovascular disease. We should eat a varied diet, rich in plants, not too abundant, and quench our thirst with water.”

Martin Warren, Scientific Director of the Quadram Institute (United Kingdom) believes (according to his statements to SMC Spain) that the study “confirms that healthy and balanced vegan and vegetarian diets have significant benefits in terms of reducing some of the main factors that associated with plaque formation and progression in the arteries, known as atherosclerosis. Therefore, the reduction of cholesterol and apolipoprotein A levels decreases the risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, thus reducing the risk of cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction or stroke.

And he adds: “Of course, both vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with promoting sustainability through reducing the environmental impact of animal husbandry, so there are benefits here too. However, animal products, such as meat, are nutrient-dense foods that have other benefits. Similarly, crop-based diets can be low in certain micronutrients, so generally reducing meat consumption, but maintaining a large and varied diet is good for health.”

For his part, Aedin Cassidy, President of Nutrition and Preventive Medicine and Director of Interdisciplinary Research at the Institute for World Food Security at the Queen’s University of Belfast (United Kingdom), has pointed out –in statements to the same medium– that “every time there is more evidence that plant-based diets influence our health and diets characterized by high-quality plant foods and a lower intake of animal products may be beneficial to health, regardless of established health conditions and genetic disposition,” but cautions that “not all plant-based diets are created equal, and only healthy plant-based diets, characterized by fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, improve health, and not other plant-based diets (for example, those that include refined carbohydrates, processed foods that are high in fat/salt, etc.)”.


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