Study warns plant-based diets are risky without adequate variety

Plant-based diets are a big trend right now and for good reason. A growing body of research has found a number of health benefits associated with reducing or eliminating the consumption of animal products, including reduced inflammation and lower odds of developing certain serious health conditions. Plant-based diets aren't without risk, however, something recently detailed in a new study from Oregon Health & Science University.

There are some known health risks associated with eating a plant-based diet, namely the potential for developing certain nutrient deficiencies that can cause problems. Failure to eat foods fortified with B12, for example, may lead to a deficiency that causes neurological problems; there are some other deficiency risks associated with plant-based diets, as well.

Beyond the issue of getting too little of a good thing is the risk of consuming too much of a bad thing. According to the new study, people who consume a diet that is high in plants, but who consume too much of one or two particular products, may be at risk of disease or injury caused by getting too much of a problematic compound.

Many plants are edible, but should be consumed within reason — a percentage of certain fruits, legumes, and similar foods are safe to eat, but regularly eating large quantities may be toxic. This reality puts undernourished people in particular at risk, according to the study, which highlights lychee fruit, grasspea, cassava, and ackee tree as examples of foods that can be neurotoxic if too much is eaten.

Grasspea and cassava, for example, can potentially cause the gradual onset of 'crippling disease.' People who rely on plants like these may be at risk if they consume large amounts, particularly if their health has already been damaged by lack of adequate access to a variety of foods.

Beyond that, the team also warns that climate change may cause certain edible plants to have higher concentrations of risky chemicals. Cassava, for example, becomes stressed when grown in drought conditions, resulting in a greater concentration of damaging compounds. People who must rely on this plant as their primary food source end up with 'an irreversible struggle to walk,' according to the researchers.

The same risk applies to anyone who may decide to adopt a plant-based diet, particularly one containing foraged and exotic foods that consumers may have little familiarity with. The study highlights the importance of understanding the potential toxicity of otherwise edible plants, the proper ways to prepare them in order to reduce the risk, and the importance of consuming a diverse, healthy diet that doesn't focus heavily on one particular food.