Diet decisions matter

By J_Howard

Be sure to thank your mom for reminding you to eat your vegetables, especially if you’re on a low-carbohydrate, high- protein diet.

A recent study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine said those on such diets who get their protein from animal sources, such as meat and eggs, may have an increased mortality rate. But those whose protein comes from plant sources have a lower than average mortality rate.

The study followed 85,168 women and 44,548 men between the ages of 34 to 59 for up to 26 years. It focused on whether a low-carbohydrate diet can lower one’s risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer over a number of years.

“This is the first study that looks at clinical endpoints rather than intermediate risk factors such as cholesterol and blood pressure,” said Teresa Fung, associate professor of nutrition at Simmons College and adjunct assistant professor at Harvard University School of Public Health. Fung was the lead researcher on the study.

During the time period of the study, 12,555 female and 8,678 male participants died, 5,204 of them from cardiovascular disease 8,740 from cancer, and the rest from other causes.

Fung said the participants who ate low-carbohydrate diets rich in animal protein had a 23 percent greater risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Dawn Jackson-Blatner, a dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, said this study makes a lot of sense to her.

“Generally when people start gearing up to do a more vegetarian, plant-based diet, their overall health improves,” Jackson-Blatner said.

Animal-protein diets include more than just meat products, Fung said, citing butter, eggs and cheese.

“Based on this study, as well as other studies, the best diet is something that is plant based,” Fung said. “That does not mean vegetarian, just that most foods [consumed] come from plant sources rather than animal sources.”

A plant-based diet stresses eating vegetables, though it does include eating more whole grains and plant products. Jackson-Blatner said a plant-based diet doesn’t completely exclude animal-based or meat products, just downsizing proportions.

Having a diet that includes variety is ideal, according to Fung. “Three characteristics of a good diet are minimally processed, plant-based and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.”

Charles Cannon, professor of chemistry and nutrition at Columbia, explained the importance of eating a variety of foods to ensure the body gets the nutrients it needs.

“Some of those nutrients our bodies can manufacture ourselves if we eat a balanced diet,” Cannon said.

Lifestyle is also a factor when considering a diet in order to maintain what Jackson-Blatner calls optimal wellness.

“Optimal wellness is this idea of increasing your health span, as well as your lifespan,” Jackson-Blatner said. “We want to live a long time and also be healthy.”

In order to reach optimal wellness, Jackson-Blatner advises beginning with simple, small changes to your diet like eating a vegetarian meal once a week instead of trying to eat one every day or minimizing meat proportions.

“Any small changes you make can sort of put you on the road for having this diet,” Jackson-Blatner said.

The study didn’t seek to find the best overall diet, the authors wrote. Cannon said he encourages students to not to debate on what diet is best, but what diet is best for the students themselves.

“I want them to see the importance of having all those nutrients available to our bodies rather than to preach that one particular diet is better than another diet,” Cannon said. “Each of us has different body chemistry.”