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Vegetarian diet could cut obesity risk

Strongest vegetarian diet results in 43% smaller risk of obesity

Adrian O'Dowd

Friday, 19 May 2017

People who have a strongly vegetarian diet appear to be 43% less likely to become obese compared with people with the least vegetarian diet, suggests findings from a new study.

Details of research* presented at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO), Porto, Portugal, showed apparent health benefits from following a pro-vegetarian diet — one with a higher consumption of plant-based foods — compared to animal-based foods.

Existing evidence suggests that such a pro-vegetarian diet has a protective role in cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but little is known about its role in the risk of developing obesity in healthy populations.

The observational study was carried out by University of Navarra student Julen Sanz under the supervision of Dr Alfredo Gea and Professor Maira Bes-Rastrollo from the University of Navarra, and CIBERobn (Carlos III Institute of Health), Spain.

The researchers examined the association between varying degrees of pro-vegetarian diet and the incidence of obesity (a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above) in 16,181 healthy, non-obese adults from the SUN Cohort (Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra) — a study tracking the health of Spanish graduates since 1999.

Study participants completed detailed food questionnaires at the start of the study, and researchers used a pro-vegetarian diet index to score each participant on the types of food they ate with points given for eating seven plant food groups — vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, olive oil, legumes and potatoes.

Points were subtracted for five animal groups — animal fats, dairy, eggs, fish and other seafood, and meat.

The researchers categorised participants into five groups from the 20% with the least pro-vegetarian diet to the 20% with the most, and followed their progress for an average of 10 years.

During the follow-up period, 584 participants became obese and the researchers found that participants who had the most vegetarian diet had a 43% reduced risk of becoming obese compared with people who had the least vegetarian diet.

The results remained the same even when other influential factors including sex, age, alcohol intake, BMI, family history of obesity, snacking between meals, smoking, sleep duration, and physical activity were taken into account.

The authors acknowledge that their findings showed observational differences rather than evidence of cause and effect.

Nevertheless, they concluded: 'Our study suggests that plant-based diets are associated with substantially lower risk of developing obesity. This supports current recommendations to shift to diets rich in plant foods, with lower intake of animal foods.'

Sanz-Serrano, J et al. Pro-vegetarian Dietary Pattern and the Incidence of Obesity in the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra (SUN) Cohort.

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