Plant-based diets – are they really salad gold?

In this week’s research club, we tackled ‘Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: All Plant Foods Are Not Created Equal’ (Hemler and Hu, 2019).

This paper reviewed some of the literature around the different definitions of plant-based diets and in particular how they can impact upon cardiovascular health. The authors also aimed to distinguish between healthy and non-healthy plant-based foods.

Plant-based diets have been increasingly recognised for their health benefits and their role in cardiovascular disease prevention. However, the composition of these diets can vary widely and could have negative effects if they contain low-quality plant foods such as refined carbohydrates and added sugars.

The terms veganism and vegetarianism have become synonymous with plant-based diets, but they aren’t suitable to be used interchangeably. In fact, one of the diets that was assessed was a Mediterranean Diet which is similar to the basis for our nutrition at CP+R. As our athletes know, this diet contains both meat and fish, but focuses on the quality of food being high across all the main macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein).

The paper emphasises on the importance of high-quality food sources and how this can improve your cardiovascular health. Diets rich in high quality plant foods promote favourable biomarkers associated with cardiometabolic risk. This includes decreased concentrations of leptin and insulin, and high sensitivity C-reactive protein. This means that the body avoids being subjected to chronic inflammation which is linked to a multitude of different heart conditions (amongst other diseases). 

Here are some of the standout stats from the review:

  • Changing equivalent amounts of animal monounsaturated fatty acids (primarily red and processed meat) for plant monounsaturated fatty acids (nuts and vegetable oils) = 24% less risk of developing CVD
  • Replacing saturated fatty acids (from fatty meat and dairy products) with polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids or wholegrain carbohydrates =9-25% lower risk of developing CVD.
  • Replacing 5% of energy intake from low quality carbohydrates (refined carbohydrates and sugars) with the calorific equivalent of polyunsaturated fatty acids was associated with a 27% decreased chance of developing CVD

Overall the most important message to take from this paper is that nutrient quality is essential and even changing the type of fats that you are eating can have a monumental effect on your cardiovascular health. Plant-based diets should place emphasis on fruit, vegetables, whole-grains, legumes and nuts and limit saturated fats, sodium, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, as well as excessive calorie intake.  That’s why at CP+R, we keep a close eye on how our athletes are fuelling their training to make sure that their nutrition is putting their health in the best position possible!