Is eating a plant-based diet the key to combating chronic illnesses? A new study published in the medical journal Dietary Science and Practice uncovered new benefits to abstaining from animal products. 

Researchers found that eating a plant-based diet reduces inflammatory dietary advanced glycation end-products (AGEs)—a biomarker implicated in chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease—by nearly 80 percent. Comparatively, a diet that includes meat and dairy products reduced AGEs by 15 percent.

AGEs are compounds that are formed in the bloodstream when proteins or fats combine with glucose. AGEs cause inflammation and oxidative stress, which eventually lead to chronic disease. 

“Simply swapping fatty meat and dairy products for a low-fat plant-based diet led to a significant decrease in advanced glycation end-products—inflammatory compounds found to a greater degree in animal products than plants,” lead study author Hana Kahleova, MD, PhD, director of clinical research at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), said in a statement.

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The decrease in AGEs was associated with an average weight loss of 14 pounds and improved insulin sensitivity, Kahleova said.

AGEs may be ingested through the diet, and animal products are generally higher in AGEs than plant foods. AGEs are also formed during normal metabolism and are formed at an increased rate when a person has metabolic syndrome—a cluster of concurring conditions that include high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance.

Health benefits of a plant-based diet

In the study, 244 participants who were overweight were randomly assigned to an intervention group, which ate a low-fat plant-based diet, or control group, which made no dietary changes, for 16 weeks. 

At the beginning and end of the study, body composition was measured and insulin sensitivity was assessed. Dietary AGEs were calculated based on self-reported dietary intake records, and a dietary AGEs database was used to estimate dietary AGEs intake.

Among the study participants, dietary AGEs decreased by 79 percent in the plant-based group, compared to 15 percent in the control group. About 55 percent of the reduction of the dietary AGEs in the plant-based group was attributable to the reduction in meat intake, 26 percent to decreased dairy intake, and 15 percent to decreased consumption of added fats. 

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The reduction in white meat consumption made the biggest difference in dietary AGEs coming from meat (59 percent), followed by processed meat (27 percent).

Body weight decreased by approximately 14 pounds in the plant-based group, compared with about one pound in the control group, largely due to a reduction in fat mass, notably visceral fat. Insulin sensitivity improved in the intervention group.

The authors say that these findings support prior observations of the favorable effects of low-AGEs diets on weight, body fat, and insulin resistance. 

Plant-based diet lowers risk of diabetes

This study builds on a growing body of evidence that links a nutritious plant-based diet to lower incidence of Type 2 diabetes. A study published earlier this year in the scientific journal Diabetologia found that the consumption of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, and legumes were associated with a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. 

The study, conducted by researchers at the Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, distinguished between healthy and unhealthy plant foods according to their existing association with Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and other conditions, including obesity and high blood pressure. 

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The researchers found that participants who developed Type 2 diabetes in the follow-up period of the study had a lower intake of foods in the “healthy plant-based” category, along with having higher BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol—and used medication to treat these issues.

“While it is difficult to tease out the contributions of individual foods because they were analyzed together as a pattern, individual metabolites from consumption of polyphenol-rich plant foods like fruits, vegetables, coffee, and legumes are all closely linked to a healthy plant-based diet and lower risk of diabetes,” Professor Frank Hu, who led the study, said in a statement. 

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