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Healthy Plant-Based Foods Associated with Lower Risk and Severity of COVID-19

While vaccines, masks, and social distancing are still the most effective strategies to prevent COVID-19, researchers wonder if diet might also be related to susceptibility of contracting the disease. In this study, researchers analyzed the diets of 592,571 people and followed them to see whether or not they contracted COVID-19. Those whose diets scored best on the healthful Plant-Based Diet Score (a measure of how many healthy plant-based foods people eat, such as fruits and vegetables) were 9% less likely to develop COVID-19 and were 41% less likely to develop severe COVID-19. Additionally, the relationship was strongest in people living in poorer areas.
Gut. 2021 Nov;70(11):2096-2104. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2021-325353. Epub 2021 Sep 6. (Merino J et al.)

Whole Grains Are an Underutilized Source of Plant Protein

Although grains are a large source of plant protein in many African, Central American, Asian, and European nations, grains are not considered an important source of protein in any dietary guidelines around the world. In this review, scientists analyze the unused potential of whole grains as animal protein alternatives. Although research suggests that consuming grains as the sole source of protein could result in deficiency, and although grains have a lower protein content than beans and other pulses, shifting grains away from animal feed and toward direct human consumption could be an important strategy to improve both human and environmental health. The review notes that both high whole grain intake and high plant-protein intake have been associated with lower risks of chronic diseases, while high animal protein intake has been associated with higher risks of disease. The authors also highlight processing strategies, such as mixed culture fermentation, that can help improve consumer acceptance of whole grain meat and dairy replacement products.
Nutrition Reviews. 2021 Nov 6;nuab084. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuab084. (Poutanen KS et al.)

Plant-Based Diets Linked with Lower Risk of Severe Symptoms in COVID-19

While mask wearing, social distancing, and approved vaccines are thus far the only proven strategies to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, research suggests that people with diet-related chronic diseases tend to be at higher risk of having more serious complications if and when they do get COVID-19. In this study of healthcare workers from 7 countries on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic (conducted in the summer of 2020, before vaccines became available), those who contracted COVID-19 and reported following a “plant-based diet” or a “plant-based or pescatarian diet” had a 73% and 59% lower risk of moderate-to-severe COVID-19 versus people who did not follow these diets. However, there was no relationship between diet and likelihood of contracting COVID-19.
BMJ Nutrition, Prevention, & Health. 2021 Jun 7;4(1):257-266. doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2021-000272. eCollection 2021. (Kim H et al.)

Plant Based Diets Can Lower Blood Pressure

Studies have shown that plant-based diets can help lower blood pressure, but researchers wonder how strict you must be with your vegetarian diet to see results. A systematic review of 41 clinical trials was performed to see how different plant-based diets, including some with low levels of animal products (the Mediterranean, Vegan, Nordic, high-fiber, and high-fruit and vegetable diets) impacted blood pressure. The results showed that even plant-based diet with limited animal products can be effective in reducing high pressure, indicating that even small steps to improve health can make a measurable difference. 
Journal of Hypertension. 2021 Jan;39(1):23-37. doi: 10.1097/HJH.0000000000002604. (Gibbs, J.et al)

Mediterranean Diet Linked with Better Thyroid Health

Our thyroids act as internal thermostats providing our bodies with hormones that help balance our heart, muscle, and digestive function, brain development, and bone maintenance. In this study, researchers analyzed the eating habits and health of 200 people, about half with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid) and half without. Those most closely following a Mediterranean diet were less likely to have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Eating more animal foods (like meat) and fewer plant foods (like vegetables) was also linked with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.  However, more research is needed on how diet might impact autoimmune and thyroid health.
Thyroid. 2021 Jan;31(1):96-105. doi: 10.1089/thy.2020.0299. (Ruggeri RM et al.)

Vegetarian Diets Linked with Lower Risk of Cataracts

Cataracts contribute to more than half of the blindness incidences globally. Diets with more antioxidants are thought to help prevent cataracts, so in this study, researchers wanted to see how vegetarian diets relate to cataract risk. A total of 4,436 Taiwanese participants (1,341 vegetarians and 3,095 non-vegetarians) free of cataracts at the time of recruitment were followed for approximately six years. After evaluating the development of cataracts among all participants, the researchers discovered that vegetarians had a 20% lower risk of cataracts than non-vegetarians. This relationship was strongest among people whose BMI is greater than 24 (overweight and nearly overweight individuals). Vegetarians tend to consume more soy, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, dietary fiber, vitamin C, folate, and vitamin A compared to non-vegetarians, so these nutritious foods and nutrients may have also impacted the lower risk of cataracts. 
Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2020 Dec 11;S2212-2672(20)31428-3. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2020.11.003 (Chiu THT et al.)

Protein from Different Sources Are Linked with Different Impacts on Longevity

While the optimal amount of protein to sustain health is subject to debate, the research is increasingly clear that protein from different sources has different impacts on health. This systematic review attempted to investigate how varied protein diets (total/animal/plant protein) impact the mortality rate. After assessing the results from 31 different studies, the researchers found that eating more total protein and plant protein are both linked to a lower risk of deaths from all causes. In particular, those who eat more plant proteins were at a lower risk of death caused by heart diseases. However, eating more animal protein did not appear to be related to lower mortality. Additionally, higher total protein intake is not associated with a lower death rate caused by cancer.
BMJ. 2020 July 22; 370. doi:10.1136/bmj.m2412 (Naghshi S et al.)

Vegetarians Have Lower Risk of Stroke

Vegetarians tend to be healthier than their meat-eating counterparts, though some are at risk of falling short on Vitamin B12 (found in animal foods or in supplements). In this study, researchers followed more than 13,000 adults in Taiwan for up to 9 years to see how vegetarianism related to stroke risk. Vegetarians had a significantly lower risk of stroke compared with people who ate meat and fish. Interestingly, when comparing vegetarians who get adequate vitamin B12 with vegetarians who fall below vitamin B12 recommendations, it was only the subgroup of vegetarians with inadequate vitamin B12 (less than 2.4 μg) that had a lower risk of stroke.
Neurology. 2020 Mar 17;94(11):e1112-e1121. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000009093. Epub 2020 Feb 26. (Chiu THT et al.)

Focus on Culture, Flavor, & Affordability May Help Drive Interest in Plant-Based Diets in Black Communities

There is overwhelming research supporting the health benefits of healthy plant-based diets, yet researchers wonder how this evidence translates to Black communities. In this review, the authors note that “the diets of Blacks were historically predominantly plant-based in Africa, and elements of that are still seen in some of today’s cultural cuisine.” Some recommendations from this review include gradually increasing intake of healthy plant-based foods, gradually decreasing intake of animal-based foods, providing culturally-appropriate interventions, providing flavorful, low-cost plant-based options, and focusing on healthy foods that are already regularly enjoyed in Black cuisine (such as leafy greens, tubers, and okra).
Nutrients. 2019 Dec 2;11(12). pii: E2915. doi: 10.3390/nu11122915. (Sterling SR et al.)

Eating a Plant-Based Diet for 5 Weeks Can Lower 10-Year Heart Disease Risk

Lifestyle changes can have a measurable impact on health, even after a short period of time. In this study, 36 African American participants in Chicago ate a completely plant-based diet for 5 weeks and had their heart disease (specifically, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease) 10-year risk scores calculated both before and after the study. After eating the plant-based diet, the 10-year heart disease risk was reduced by 19.4%, “bad” LDL cholesterol was lowered by 14%, and their systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) was lowered by 10 mm Hg.
Circulation. 2019 Nov 11;140:A16318 (Fugar S et al.)

Healthy Diets Linked with Healthy Gut Microbiome in Patients with Intestinal Issues

The species of bacteria that live in our gut are thought to impact our health, so researchers wonder if diet might impact the gut microbiome of people burdened by intestinal disorders. In this study, researchers analyzed the gut microbiome of 4 different groups of people (including a general population, patients with Crohn’s disease, patients with ulcerative colitis, and patients with irritable bowel syndrome). They found that diets rich in bread, legumes, fish, and nuts were linked with lower levels of inflammatory markers and lower levels of potentially harmful aerobic bacteria. On the other hand, diets rich in meat, fast food, and sugar were linked with higher inflammatory markers. (Note that findings presented at meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.)
Presentation at UEG Week Meeting. Barcelona. October 21, 2019. (Bolts L et al.)

Healthy Diet in Midlife Linked with Lower Risk of Cognitive Impairment Later in Life

Eating a healthy diet in mid-life can pay dividends in later decades. In this study, researchers analyzed the eating habits of 16,948 middle-aged adults in China, then assessed their brain function 20 years later. Those most closely following a Mediterranean diet or a Plant-Based Diet were 33% and 18% less likely to have cognitive impairment than those not following those diets. Other healthy diets, including the DASH diet and the alternative Healthy Eating Index, were also linked with significantly lower risks of cognitive impairment.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2019 Oct 1;110(4):912-920. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqz150. (Wu J et al.)

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