People who follow a vegetarian or meat-free diet may be at a lower risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, a new study suggests. The study of lifestyle habits of more than 700 adults showed researchers that 23 out of every 100 vegetarians have at least three metabolic syndrome factors, compared with 39 out of every 100 non-vegetarians and 37 out of every 100 semi-vegetarians.
The researchers measured a suite of factors ‒ blood sugar, blood fats, blood pressure, waist size, and body mass ‒ that when elevated add up to “metabolic syndrome,” and found that vegetarians were lower than non-vegetarians on all counts except cholesterol.
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of health disorders that increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease, stroke, and diabetes. The risk factors include conditions like abdominal obesity, blood fat disorders, elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or glucose intolerance.
Vegetarianism excludes high-calorie foods and animal products laden with saturated fats. It instead concentrates on foods that give necessary minerals and vitamins that help give diabetics a better chance of blood glucose control. These include whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Vegetarian diets are rich in fiber, which has numerous benefits. When a diabetic eats a fiber-rich meal, the desire for further food disappears. Fiber also plays a protective role for pre-diabetics, and can lead to lower daily requirements of insulin amongst type 1 diabetics.
Fiber is well known as being important in the improving blood sugar control, lowering cholesterol levels and providing folate, thereby reducing the risk of complications like heart disease. Considerable research is available as evidence for the role of fiber in diabetes.
Research has shown vegetarian diets promote a healthy weight since they are often lower in calories than non-vegetarian diets. They also improve blood sugar control and insulin response since eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts — features of a vegetarian diet — can improve blood sugar control and make your body more responsive to insulin. Most importantly, a vegetarian diet reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease since it is cholesterol-free, low in saturated fat and usually high in soluble fiber.
The new study ‒ published in the journal Diabetes Care ‒ has confirmed that vegetarians are lower than non-vegetarians on all counts including blood sugar, blood pressure, waist size, body mass index (BMI), and blood fats except cholesterol.
The findings show the vegetarians’ average BMI of 25.7 was four points lower than that of non-vegetarians, who, on average, had BMIs close to 30. However, semi-vegetarians fell in the middle. A BMI greater than 25 is considered overweight, and greater than 30 is considered obese. Moreover, the findings suggested that while vegetarians, on average, were 3 years older than the meat-eaters, they were in better shape and health status.
“I was expecting there should be a difference….but I didn’t expect that it would be that much,” lead researcher Nico Rizzo of Loma Linda University was quoted by Reuters as saying, adding he was not sure what’s behind the differences and wondered whether it was primarily the meat intake, the plant food intake or a combination of both.
It’s possible that diet is not the cause because the research showed only an association between food choices and health factors, not cause-and-effect. High BMI, for instance, one of the traits that make up the metabolic syndrome profile, itself contributes to high blood pressure, and indirectly, blood sugar, and thereby potentially raising a person’s risk of heart disease and diabetes.
One of the shortcomings of the study is that the researchers didn’t study the reasons behind the differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians even though the scientists suggest it may be caused by the meat intake, eating the plant food or a combination of both. The researchers also did not follow the subjects over the long term to see whether those who abstained from meat actually had lower rates of diabetes or heart disease.
The data for this research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, came from the Adventist Health Study 2, a long term study of Seventh Day Adventists. This Christian religious group has considerably more vegetarians than the general population.
In this study, 35 percent of the subjects did not eat meat, whereas only about five percent of all Americans are vegetarian. One of the differences Rizzo discovered between the groups was age. Vegetarians, on average, were 3 years older than the meat-eaters. “Even though they’re older, they’re in better shape,” Rizzo said. “That’s something I found quite interesting.”