Going vegetarian? Not so fast…

Many people become vegetarians for any number of reasons…

But the majority of people make their decisions based on three key reasons, including religious or moral issues related to animal welfare; environmental issues related to greenhouse gases, carbon footprints and sustainability; and, finally, health benefits related to staving off heart disease, cancer, diabetes, blood pressure, stroke and obesity.

If you’re considering a vegetarian diet — especially for health reasons — you may want to dig deeper. Because recent research shows that not all plant-based diets are equal.

In fact, some are downright unhealthy. One in particular, however, appears to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and lead to a longer life…

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Why go vegetarian?

If you want to live longer and be healthier as you live, a vegetarian diet seems to be a way toward achieving that goal. Research shows that vegetarians outlive their meat-consuming counterparts by about 6 years. The reason for this “extension in life” could be due to the fact that plant-based diets reduce the risk of developing major, life-shortening diseases, like the ones I mentioned above.

Moreover, ample fiber is lacking in many meat-based diets and lack of fiber can lead to many health issues—while a fiber-rich diet just may be a panacea.

Not all plant-based diets are created equal

A common mistake is thinking that eating loads of veggies will make you healthier, but this simply is not true. And recent research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology sheds light on why. Simply put, “not all plant foods are necessarily beneficial for health.”

In three ongoing prospective cohort studies, researchers included 73,700 women in NHS (Nurses’ Health Study; 1984 to 2012), 92,329 women in NHS2 (1991 to 2013), and 43,259 men in Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986 to 2012), to examine the associations between plant-based diet indices and coronary heart disease (CHD) incidence. At study start, all participants were free of chronic diseases.

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Types of plant-based diets

Researchers wanted to see if all plant-based diets were equally strong at reducing risk of disease; specifically, coronary heart disease (CHD). To do so, they created an overall plant-based diet index (PDI) by assigning positive scores to plant-based foods and negative scores to animal-based foods. They came up with three categories:

  1. Healthful plant-based diet index (hPDI), which included healthy plant foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes, plant-based oils, and the addition of tea and coffee.
  2. Less-healthful plant-based diet index (lPDI), which was a plant-based diet that also included juices sugar sweetened beverages (SSB), refined grains, potatoes and French fries, sweets, and animal-based foods.
  3. Unhealthful plant-based diet index (uPDI), which assigned positive scores to less-healthy plant foods and negative scores to animal and healthy plant foods.

Will the healthiest plant-based diet please stand up?

During the course of the study, 8,632 participants developed coronary heart disease. However, those who adhered highest to the Plant-based Diet Index (PDI) had the least incidence of coronary heart disease. On the contrary, those who ate a plant-based diet that included sweets, French fries and the other elements of the unhealthy version (uPDI), were positively associated with development of CHD.

So it’s easy to see the health effects of following a vegetarian diet go far beyond the exclusion of meat, to choosing not only a balance of the healthiest vegetables and grains, but also considering how you cook your food. Things that can hurt these good foods include frying them, refining them and adding sugars — all hallmarks of over-processed foods that are nothing but disease-causing calories.

Coronary heart disease can be prevented with a diet in high-quality plant-based foods — from whole food sources — while avoiding simple (refined) carbohydrates, processed meat and, sugar-sweetened processed beverages and snacks.

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Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.