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Plant-based diets support healthy aging and could significantly reduce the risk of cardiometabolic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease, finds a new review.

Plant-based diets are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. A 2017 report estimated that 6% of U.S. consumers eat a vegan diet, up from just 1% in 2014.

There are many reasons why people choose to adopt a vegan diet, including avoiding harm to animals and mitigating the environmental impact of intensive farming.

A plant-based diet also provides health benefits. This diet is higher in fiber and lower in cholesterol and fat than an omnivorous diet, and it scores higher on the Healthy Eating Index.

A new review of the evidence on plant-based diets suggests that they may also protect against type 2 diabetes and heart disease and could reduce cardiometabolic-related deaths in the U.S.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) in Washington, DC, led the review, which features in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.

An aging world

The review focuses on health in the context of aging, an important topic given that the world’s population is rapidly getting older.

“The global population of adults 60 years old or older is expected to double from 841 million to 2 billion by 2050, presenting clear challenges for our healthcare system,” explains first author Hana Kahleova, M.D., Ph.D., director of clinical research for the PCRM.

Dr. Kahleova and her team reviewed both clinical trials — which researchers perform under controlled conditions, usually to test the effect of a specific intervention on a particular outcome — and epidemiological studies, which follow people over time under normal conditions.

They found evidence that a plant-based diet reduces the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease.

Specifically, they found that plant-based diets could halve the risk of metabolic syndrome, which increases a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Eating a plant-based diet could also halve the risk of type 2 diabetes itself, as well as reducing the risk of coronary heart disease events, such as a heart attack, by 40%.

‘Blue Zones’

People who eat plant-based diets may also live longer. The authors refer to so-called Blue Zones, where people live longer than the average. Examples include Loma Linda, CA, where people live up to 10 years longer than other people in California, and Okinawa, Japan, which has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world.

As well as not smoking and engaging in moderate physical activity, people in Blue Zones tend to have a mostly plant-based diet. In Okinawa, for example, people consume a diet high in sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables, and soy products.

As well as living longer, people who eat a plant-based diet may also remain cognitively healthy for longer.

The authors found one study which showed that the MIND diet — which is rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds but does not exclude animal products — reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The team found that the DASH diet, which is similar to the MIND diet, and the Mediterranean diet were also associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

A cost effective approach

Although aging is inevitable, the authors say that adopting a healthful, plant-based diet could help delay the aging process and reduce the risk of age-associated diseases. It could also increase a person’s life expectancy.

“[S]imple diet changes can go a long way in helping populations lead longer, healthier lives.” Dr. Hana Kahleova, Ph.D.

This conclusion is in line with the findings of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017, which showed that a low intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and a high intake of red and processed meats are major risk factors for disease.

The authors say that as well as offering significant benefits for health, plant-based diets could reduce healthcare costs in the U.S., which are close to $3.5 trillion each year. They suggest that a healthful diet is a cost effective approach to preventing disease and recommend incorporating it into everyday life.

The United Nations Children’s Funds (UNICEF) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) have warned that up to 15.4 million cases of acute malnutrition in children less than five years are expected in 2020 in West and Central Africa.

They said one third of them is from its most severe form, if adequate measures are not put in place now.

In a statement issued by UNICEF, the global body said this represents a 20 per cent increase from earlier estimates in January 2020, according to an analysis of the combined impact of food insecurity and COVID-19 on acute malnutrition in 19 countries of the regions.

Conflict and armed violence have led to massive population displacements and drastically limited access to basic social services, causing child malnutrition to increase to unprecedented levels.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 4.5 million cases were anticipated to suffer from acute malnutrition in 2020 in six countries of the regions. Today, with growing insecurity and COVID-19, that number has jumped to almost 5.4 million.

UNICEF’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Marie-Pierre Poirier, said: “Children suffering from severe acute malnutrition are at higher risk of COVID-19-related complications. Good nutrition for children, starting from their early days, protects them against illnesses and infections and supports their recovery when they become ill.

“Ensuring the continuity of preventive and lifesaving health and nutrition services, building shock-responsive social protection systems, protecting livelihoods and supporting families’ access to water, hygiene and healthy food are critical for child survival and long-term development.

“Several factors threaten the nutritional status of children under five in West and Central Africa.

“These include household food insecurity, poor maternal nutrition and infant feeding practices, conflicts and armed violence, population displacement, high levels of childhood illnesses and water-borne diseases such as diarrhea; fragile health systems, and poor access to clean water and sanitation, as well as chronic poverty.”

She stressed that these malnutrition-aggravating factors and COVID-19 pandemic containment measures have led to disruptions in food production and distribution in health and humanitarian supply chains, as well as a slow-down of economic activities.

“The pandemic has had indirect negative impacts on food systems, households’ income and food security, as well as the provision of treatment against malnutrition,” Poirier said.

Experts know that processed red meats are likely to raise the risk of cardiovascular disease and death. But are unprocessed meats, fish, and poultry less harmful? New research investigates.

Several studies have established a link between consuming processed meat — such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages, and other similar meats — and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and death.

The higher amount of saturated fats in these foods, along with a higher level of salt and preservatives, might explain these associations. Newer research has suggested that even a low amount of these foods is enough to jeopardize health.

But what about other meats, such as unprocessed red meat, poultry, or fish? Do these foods affect cardiovascular risk and longevity in the same way?

Here, the research is more mixed. The results of several studies vary partly because the methods were different and partly because the existing prospective cohort studies had their limitations.

So, to fill this gap in the research, a group of scientists led by Victor W. Zhong, Ph.D., of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, set out to conduct a new meta-analysis of 6 existing studies.

The pooled analysis appears in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Studying intake of meat, poultry, and fish

Zhong and the team looked at prospective cohort studies that had been carried out across the United States, totaling 29,682 U.S. adults who did not have CVD at baseline.

Of the participants, 44% were men, and almost 31% were non-white.

Researchers had recorded the participants’ dietary data between 1985–2002 and clinically followed them for 30 years, until August 31, 2016.

Over a median follow-up period of 19 years, 6,963 adverse cardiovascular events and 8,875 all-cause deaths occurred.

Of the cardiovascular events, 38.6% were cases of coronary heart disease, 25% were stroke events, and 34.0% involved heart failure.

To define what constitutes 1 serving of meat and assess the participants’ diet, the researchers used the Willett Food Frequency Questionnaire.

“1 serving was equivalent to 4 [ounces] of unprocessed red meat or poultry or 3 [ounces] of fish. For processed meat, 1 serving consisted of 2 slices of bacon, 2 small links of sausage, or 1 hot dog,” explain the authors.

The median consumption in terms of servings of meat, poultry, and fish per week was 1.5 for processed meat, 3 for unprocessed red meat, 2 for poultry, and 1.6 for fish.

“Compared with participants with lower total intake of these four food types, participants with higher total intake,” write the authors, were more likely to:

  • be younger and male
  • be non-Hispanic black
  • be smokers, have diabetes, a higher body mass index (BMI), higher non-high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels, and consume more alcohol
  • have lower HDL cholesterol levels and eat a lower diet quality diet
  • have a higher incidence of CVD and death from any cause

The main outcome that the scientists looked for was the relative risk of CVD and all-cause mortality over the 30 years between people who consumed these different foods, as well as the difference in absolute risk over the same period.

They calculated the risks for each additional intake of 2 servings per week.

Up to 7% higher relative risk of death, CVD

Zhong and the team summarize the findings: the “intake of processed meat, unprocessed red meat, or poultry was significantly associated with incident cardiovascular disease, but fish intake was not.”

More specifically, the increased relative risks of CVD and all-cause mortality ranged from about 3% to 7%. “The increased absolute risks were less than 2% over the 30 years of follow-up,” add the authors.

More in-depth detail shows that for every 2 additional servings of processed meat per week, the relative risk of all-cause mortality rose by 3% compared with those who did not eat processed meat.

The same was true for each additional 2 servings of unprocessed meat.

The relative risk of CVD rose by 7% for every 2 servings of processed meat per week. For unprocessed red meat, this risk was 3%.

An increase of 2 weekly servings of poultry correlated with a 4% higher relative risk, whereas fish was not associated with CVD risk.

“People who consume more servings per week would have greater risks,” add the researchers.

Study of ‘critical public health’ importance

The authors deem the findings of “critical public health” importance. They also note that more research is necessary to strengthen the findings.

As it stands, the current study has some limitations, such as the self-reported nature of dietary data. This may have resulted in over or underestimation of the association.

Secondly, the scientists did not have any data on the method of food preparation. Whether the meat was fried or non-fried may have impacted the health outcomes.

Thirdly, the study only used one dietary measurement at the beginning of the study, but the dietary habits of the participants may have changed over time.

Finally, residual confounding, the observational nature of the study, and the fact that the data may only be limited to U.S. adults are further shortcomings of this research. Still, Zhong and team conclude:

“The findings of this study appear to have critical public health implications given that dietary behaviors are modifiable, and most people consume these four food types on a daily or weekly basis.”

The kidneys are small organs in the lower abdomen that play a significant role in the overall health of the body. Some foods may boost the performance of the kidneys, while others may place stress on them and cause damage.

The kidneys filter waste products from the blood and send them out of the body in the urine. They are also responsible for balancing fluid and electrolyte levels.

The kidneys perform these tasks with no outside help. Several conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, may affect their ability to function.

Ultimately, damage to the kidneys may lead to chronic kidney disease (CKD). As the authors of a 2016 article noteTrusted Source, diet is the most significant risk factor for CKD-related death and disability, making dietary changes a key part of treatment.

Following a kidney-healthy diet plan may help the kidneys function properly and prevent damage to these organs. However, although some foods generally help support a healthy kidney, not all of them are suitable for people who have kidney disease.

Water

Water is the most important drink for the body. The cells use water to transport toxins into the bloodstream.

The kidneys then use water to filter these toxins out and to create the urine that transports them out of the body.

A person can support these functions by drinking whenever they feel thirsty.

Fatty fish

Salmon, tuna, and other cold-water, fatty fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids can make a beneficial addition to any diet.

The body cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, which means that they have to come from the diet. Fatty fish are a great natural source of these healthful fats.

As the National Kidney Foundation note, omega-3 fats may reduce fat levels in the blood and also slightly lower blood pressure. As high blood pressure is a risk factor for kidney disease, finding natural ways to lower it may help protect the kidneys.

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are similar to white potatoes, but their excess fiber may cause them to break down more slowly, resulting in less of a spike in insulin levels. Sweet potatoes also contain vitamins and minerals, such as potassium, that may help balance the levels of sodium in the body and reduce its effect on the kidneys.

However, as sweet potato is a high-potassium food, anyone who has CKD or is on dialysis may wish to limit their intake of this vegetable.

Dark leafy greens

Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and chard, are dietary staples that contain a wide variety of vitamins, fibers, and minerals. Many also contain protective compounds, such as antioxidants.

However, these foods also tend to be high in potassium, so they may not be suitable for people on a restricted diet or those on dialysis.

Berries

Dark berries, which include strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, are a great source of many helpful nutrients and antioxidant compounds. These may help protect the cells in the body from damage.

Berries are likely to be a better option than other sugary foods for satisfying a sweet craving.

Apples

An apple is a healthful snack that contains an important fiber called pectin. Pectin may help reduce some risk factors for kidney damage, such as high blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

Apples can also often satisfy a sweet tooth.

Foods to avoid

There are several foods that people should avoid if they want to improve their kidney health or prevent damage to these organs.

These include the following:

Phosphorous-rich foods

Too much phosphorus can put stress on the kidneys. ResearchTrusted Source has shown that there is a correlation between high phosphorous intake and an increased risk of long-term damage to the kidneys.

However, there is not enough evidence to prove that phosphorous causes this damage, so more research into this topic is necessary.

For people looking to reduce their phosphorous intake, foods high in phosphorous include:

  • meat
  • dairy products
  • most grains
  • legumes
  • nuts
  • fish

Red meat

Some types of protein may be harder for the kidneys, or the body in general, to process. These include red meat.

Initial research has shown that people who eat a lot of red meat have a higher risk of end-stage kidney disease than those who eat less red meat. However, there is a need for more studies to investigate this risk.

Foods for people with CKD

Sliced cabbage on a board
Cabbage may be beneficial for people with CKD.

While the above foods may support a healthy kidney in general, they are not usually the best choices for people with CKD.

Doctors will put most people with CKD on a specific diet to avoid minerals that the kidneys process, such as sodium, potassium, and phosphorous.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommend that people with CKD eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day.

As CKD progresses, people may also need to limit their phosphorous intake, as this mineral can build up in the blood of people with this disease.

Choosing the right amount of potassium is also important for people with CKD, as problems may occur when potassium levels get too high or low.

People with CKD should aim to eat healthful foods that are low in these minerals but still provide the body with other nutrients.

It may also be important for people with CKD to reduce their protein intake and only include small amounts of protein in their meals. When the body uses protein, it turns into waste, which the kidneys must then filter out.

As a 2017 studyTrusted Source notes, eating a diet lower in protein may protect against complications of CKD, such as metabolic acidosis, which occurs as kidney function deteriorates. The researchers indicated that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in protein might help reduce these risks.

People with CKD can work directly with a dietitian to create a suitable diet plan that meets their needs.

Cabbage

Cabbage is a leafy vegetable that may be beneficial for people with CKD. It is relatively low in potassium and very low in sodium, yet it also contains many helpful compounds and vitamins.

Red bell peppers

In addition to being very low in minerals such as sodium and potassium, red bell peppers contain helpful antioxidant compounds, which may protect the cells from damage.

Garlic

Garlic is an excellent seasoning choice for people with CKD. It can give other foods a more satisfying, full flavor, which may reduce the need for extra salt. Garlic also offers a range of health benefits.

Cauliflower

Cauliflower is a versatile vegetable for people with CKD. With the right preparation, it makes a good replacement for foods such as rice, mashed potatoes, and even pizza crust.

Cauliflower also contains a range of nutrients without providing too much sodium, potassium, or phosphorous.

Arugula

People with CKD may have to avoid many greens, but arugula can be a great replacement. Arugula is generally lower in potassium than other greens, but it still contains fiber and other beneficial nutrients.

Berries

bowl of blueberries
Blueberries are a healthful snack for people with CKD.

The fruits below can be a healthful sweet snack for people with CKD:

  • cranberries
  • strawberries
  • blueberries
  • raspberries
  • red grapes
  • cherries

Olive oil

Olive oil may be the best cooking oil because of the type of fat that it contains. Olive oil is high in oleic acid, which is a polyunsaturated fatty acid that may help reduce inflammation in the body.

Egg whites

Eggs are a simple protein, but the yolks are very high in phosphorous. People with CKD can make omelets or scrambled eggs using just the egg whites.

Foods for people with CKD to avoid

For people with CKD, some foods may be difficult for the body to process and might place more stress on the kidney. These include:

  • white potatoes
  • red meat
  • dairy products
  • sugary beverages
  • avocado
  • bananas
  • canned foods
  • pickled foods
  • alcohol
  • egg yolks

People looking to protect their kidneys from future damage may also want to consider eating these foods in moderation.

Summary

The kidneys play an important role in filtering the blood and eliminating waste products in the urine. Many foods may help support an already healthy kidney and prevent damage to this organ.

However, people with chronic kidney disease will need to follow a different set of dietary rules to protect their kidneys from further damage.

It is always best to talk to a licensed dietitian before moving forward with any dietary changes.

Recent research has revealed a mechanism through which fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, might reduce inflammation. A study that tested an enriched fish oil supplement found that it increased blood levels of certain anti-inflammatory molecules.

The anti-inflammatory molecules are called specialized pro-resolving mediators (SPMs), and they have a powerful effect on white blood cells, as well as controlling blood vessel inflammation.

Scientists already knew that the body makes SPMs by breaking down essential fatty acids, including some omega-3 fatty acids. However, the relationship between supplement intake and circulating levels of SPMs remained unclear.

So, a team of researchers from the William Harvey Research Institute at Queen Mary University of London in the United Kingdom set out to clarify the relationship by testing the effect of an enriched fish oil supplement in 22 healthy volunteers whose ages ranged from 19 to 37 years.

The team conducted the Circulation Research study as a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Therefore, neither the participants nor those who gave them the doses and monitored them knew who received fish oil supplements and who received the placebo.

“We used the molecules as our biomarkers to show how omega-3 fatty acids are used by our body and to determine if the production of these molecules has a beneficial effect on white blood cells,” says senior study author Jesmond Dalli, who is a professor of molecular pharmacology at the William Harvey Institute.

Enriched fish oil increased blood markers

The trial tested three doses of enriched fish oil supplement against the placebo. The researchers took samples of the participants’ blood to test.

Each participant gave five samples over 24 hours — at baseline and then 2, 4, 6, and 24 hours after taking their dose of supplement or placebo.

The researchers found that taking the enriched fish oil supplement raised blood levels of SPMs. The results showed a “time and dose-dependent” increase in circulating blood levels of SPMs.

The tests also revealed that supplementation led to a dose-dependent increase in immune cell attacks against bacteria and a decrease in cell activity that promotes blood clotting.

Inflammation is a defense response by the immune system that is essential to health. Various factors can trigger the response, including damaged cells, toxins, and pathogens such as bacteria.

Some of the immune cells that are active during inflammation can also damage tissue, so it is important, once the threat is over, for inflammation to subside to allow healing. Putting a stop to inflammation is where anti-inflammatory agents, such as SPMs, have a role.

However, if inflammation persists and becomes chronic, then, instead of protecting health, it undermines it. Studies have linked inflammation to heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and other serious health conditions.

Although it remains unclear whether those molecules reduce cardiovascular disease, a press release on the study notes that they do “supercharge macrophages, specialized cells that destroy bacteria and eliminate dead cells,” as well as making “platelets less sticky, potentially reducing the formation of blood clots.”

Research has also shown the molecules to play a role in tissue regeneration. As Prof. Dalli notes, “These molecules have multiple targets.”

Beware of unregulated supplements

An earlier 2019 study in NEJM showed that a prescription formula containing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) could reduce heart attacks and strokes — and deaths relating to these events — in people who are at high risk of cardiovascular disease or already have it. EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is present in fish oil.

However, Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, who is a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, both in Boston, MA, and who led that study, says that there is no reliable evidence that over-the-counter supplements can have the same effect.

In the United States, federal regulators have approved two formulations: one containing EPA and a second that combines EPA with another omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

The American Heart Association (AHA) recently issued a scientific advisory that cautions consumers to avoid unregulated omega-3 supplements.

An earlier AHA advisory had stated that while such supplements may slightly lessen the risk of death following a heart attack or heart failure, there is no evidence that they prevent heart disease in the first place.

Prof. Dalli says that there is a need for further studies to establish whether people over the age of 45 years would experience the same results from enriched fish oil supplements that they saw in the younger volunteers.

Compared with healthy people, those living with chronic inflammation have lower levels of SPMs, he remarks, noting that the enzymes that produce them do not work as well in these individuals.

He suggests that this is the kind of information that developers will need to consider when formulating supplements for treating disease. It will also be important to check that the body is breaking down the supplements into protective molecules.

“We’re still far away from having the magic formula. Each person will need a specific formulation or at least a specific dosing, and that’s something we need to learn more about.”

Prof. Jesmond Dalli