Vegetarian diets can be very unhealthy too, experts warn

Plant-based and vegetarian diets have increased in popularity due to their environmentally-friendly status and myriad of potential health benefits. However, a new study warns that not all vegetarian diets are the same — and, in fact, those who adhere to certain plant-based diets may end up with the same sort of long-term health conditions as those who eat unhealthy meat-based diets.

A large body of past research has linked plant-based diets, including pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan — with numerous health benefits and few health risks, including reduced inflammation, reduced odds of developing certain cancers, lower cardiovascular disease risk, and more. However, not all plant-based diets are made the same.

The research, which comes from Harokopio University and was recently presented by the European Society of Cardiology, notes that it is possible to eat a vegetarian diet but still develop health outcomes like high blood sugar and high blood pressure. This is because it's not just the category of foods eaten, but also the specific health profile of the foods that matter.

Choosing unhealthy food products, such as sugary, processed items like white potatoes, juice, soda, candy, refined grains, and similar things, were linked to negative health outcomes over time. In contrast, vegetarians whose diets focused on healthy foods, such as whole grains, unprocessed products, high-fiber vegetables, and similar were more likely to maintain their health over time.

Women were found to be at greater risk of developing negative health outcomes from unhealthy plant-based food choices compared to men. However, there was one 'catch,' which is that all of the participants in the study were obese — and, therefore, the findings aren't necessarily applicable to individuals who are a normal weight.

Study author Dr. Matina Kouvari said:

Our study highlights the variable nutritional quality of plant foods. This finding was more evident in women. Prior research has shown that women tend to eat more plant-based foods and less animal-based products than men. But our study suggests that this does not guarantee healthier food choices and in turn better health status.