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Why Your Plant-Based Diet Might Not Be Working for You

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Plant-based Vegan Diet

You followed a plant-based diet, but your physician tells you that your latest fasting blood test results shows no improvement in your cardiovascular health. Here’s one possible reason why, and what you can do to get better numbers the next time.


According to a recent news release from the American College of Cardiology, Demosthenes Panagiotakos, PhD, professor of biostatistics, research methods and epidemiology at Harokopio University of Athens, Greece reports that a new study shows that following a plant-based diet might not be enough to prevent you from developing heart disease.

"Based on these results, it seems that simply following a plant-based or vegetarian diet is not enough to reduce cardiovascular disease risk," states the study’s lead author, Dr. Panagiotakos. “It is also important to focus on specific, healthful plant-based food groups to see a benefit in terms of reducing cardiovascular disease."

Heart Disease and Fasting Blood Test

An important part of cardiovascular risk prevention is the use of a fasting blood test that will give your physician useful information about your lipid profile to check the level of your cholesterol and other blood fats present; which if high enough, can put you at risk for developing heart disease or having a stroke.

Therefore, learning that one of the most recommended ways of beating high cholesterol - namely eating more plants and less red meat - and losing weight, is just not cutting the mustard leaf can be disheartening as well as confusing for the health-conscious.

According to the study, over a 10-year period, researchers tracked both the eating behavior and levels of heart disease from over two thousand adult study participants. The collected data was categorized into groups based on how much meat and other animal-derived products such as eggs and dairy were consumed per day per individual.

What the numbers revealed was not surprising. Men who ate the least amount of animal-based foods were 25% less likely to develop heart disease than men who ate comparatively more. Among women in the study, there was an 11% risk reduction for those who also consumed the least amount of animal-based foods.

Consuming Plant-based Diet

The study also notes that those who followed a more plant-based diet consumed about three animal-based foods a day, whereas the lesser plant-based diet participants consumed about 5 animal-based foods per day.

"These findings highlight that even a small reduction in the daily consumption of animal-based products—principally the less healthy foods, such as processed meat products—accompanied by an increase in healthy plant-based foods may contribute to better cardiovascular health," Panagiotakos said.

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However, an unexpected result was uncovered when the participants categorized as following a more plant-based diet were compared with each other with respect to who ate healthier amongst themselves.

The participants were divided into healthy and less-healthy groups based on whether in addition to their plant-based diets they also consumed relatively healthy foods such as whole grains, nuts, legumes and drank coffee or tea; or, consumed less-healthy additional foods such as refined grains, starchy potatoes, sweetened beverages and candy.

What this grouping revealed was that eating a plant-based diet along with less-healthy food choices offered significantly less protection from heart disease than those who consumed a plant-based diet along with other healthy food choices. In addition, women again fared less well than men with the exception that women who had a plant-based diet and consumed relatively healthier food choices, actually showed a marked reduction in cardiovascular risk greater than the healthiest men grouping. The reason for this is possibly because women tend to snack more often than men, and as a result, this group benefited from additional healthier food consumption overall.

According to Dr. Panagiotakos, this suggests that snacking on healthful foods can be beneficial, whereas snacking on unhealthful foods can bring on higher cardiovascular risks.

"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," said Dr. Panagiotakos.

Plant-based Diet Is Good

So, the take-home point here is that for now, following a plant-based diet does do good, but only if it is supplemented with other healthy food choices and not supplemented with foods that are viewed as relatively unhealthy---especially when it comes to the snacks we choose.

For more about other consequences of bad snacking choices, here is an informative article about Why Flavored Water is Actually Bad for Your Health.

Reference: “To Reap Heart Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet, Avoid Junk Food” American College of Cardiology, March 18, 2020.

About the Author
Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

This story has been reviewed by Dr. Inaam Schneider, MD of Schneider Medical Group. According to U.S. News Health, Dr. Inaam Schneider is an internist in Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 20 years.

Dr. Schneider adds "Plant-based diets are good in general. It is important to avoid excessive amounts of carbs and foods that contain refined sugars. This leads to increasing Triglycerides ( the other fat in the blood) which will lead to decreasing HDL cholesterol ( good ) which is believed to have a protective effect against Cardiovascular disease."