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May 17, 2021
Increasing focus on the overall health of the planet and the people and animals that inhabit it, along with COVID-19’s effect on how people view their personal wellness, have combined to put plant-based eating in the spotlight. Now, plant-based proponents may have even more ammo for their arsenal, following a recent report from the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) showed vegetarians have generally healthier biomarkers than their meat-eating brethren.
The study of more than 166,000 U.K. adults examined many biomarkers; according to the study’s authors, “Biomarkers can have bad and good health effects, promoting or preventing cancer, cardiovascular and age-related diseases, and other chronic conditions, and have been widely used to assess the effect of diets on health.”
The University of Glasgow researchers conducted a cross-sectional analysis of 177,723 healthy adults (ages 37-73), examining blood and urine biomarkers. Study subjects were divided into two groups: vegetarian (4,111) and meat-eaters (166,516). Researchers then compared nearly 20 biomarkers “related to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), cancer, liver, bone and joint health, and kidney function” between the two groups. Influencing factors such as age, sex, education level, ethnicity, smoking and drinking status, and others were accounted for.
Even accounting for those potential influences outside the diet, researchers found the vegetarian group had lower levels of 13 biomarkers, which included total cholesterol as well as so-called “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Other biomarkers seen at lower levels in the vegetarian group included, “apolipoprotein A (linked to CVD), apolipoprotein B (linked to CVD); gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT) and alanine aminotransferase (AST)—liver function markers indicating inflammation or damage to cells; insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1; a hormone that encourages the growth and proliferation of cancer cells); urate; total protein; and creatinine (marker of worsening kidney function).”
While all of that is good news for vegetarians, some biomarkers showed benefits of meat-eating as well. Vegetarians were found to have lower levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, vitamins D and calcium. The vegetarian group also had higher levels of cystatin-C, which the authors noted suggests poorer kidney function than the meat-eating group. Additionally, and somewhat surprisingly, vegetarians also had higher levels of triglycerides (fat) in the blood.
“Our findings offer real food for thought,” noted Carlos Celis-Morales, lead researcher. “As well as not eating red and processed meat, which have been linked to heart diseases and some cancers, people who follow a vegetarian diet tend to consume more vegetables, fruits and nuts, which contain more nutrients, fiber and other potentially beneficial compounds. These nutritional differences may help explain why vegetarians appear to have lower levels of disease biomarkers that can lead to cell damage and chronic disease.”
Plant-based eating is a growing trend, helped by the increasing number of “flexitarian” consumers—those who consume meat and other animal products but also look to supplement their diets with plant-based foods. This new consumer niche has led to a boon of innovation in the category, from dairy alternatives to plant-based protein sources and more. However, as seen by the results of the U.K. study, these products must not only deliver on taste, but on function as well. For example, dairy alternatives should be fortified with the calcium and vitamin D shown to be lacking in vegetarians. Additionally, with the trend of clean label eating growing alongside plant-based, non-animal-derived alternatives cannot be overly processed or contain other ingredients consumers may balk at, such as increased levels of fat or sugar.
Many factors, from personal to planetary health, have led to a growth in the plant-based sector, with increasing numbers of non-vegetarians joining the party. Taking advantage of the positive health halo of plant-based options will continue to grow the consumer base—so long as taste remains king.
Editorial coordinator, Informa
After a career in sportswriting, Alex Smolokoff was on the editorial team at Informa Markets from December 2018 through spring of 2022, working on Food & Beverage Insider. In his free time, he enjoys watching his hometown Boston sports teams.
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