Research suggests that replacing animal-based foods with plant-based alternatives may significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The study published in BMC Medicine analysed 37 studies up to March 2023, revealed promising outcomes for cardiovascular health when individuals shifted from meat and dairy to plant-based options such as whole grains, beans, nuts, olive oil, fruits and vegetables.

The German research team focused on generally healthy participants who made the transition from animal-based to plant-based diets, observing them over the long term.

The findings indicated a clear improvement in cardiovascular health and diabetes risk, especially when processed meats were replaced with nuts or legumes.

Swapping daily processed meat for nuts or legumes led to a 25% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20% drop in the risk of type 2 diabetes and overall mortality.

Replacing one daily egg with nuts was associated with a 17% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and substituting it with nuts or whole grains showed a 20% lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

However, the study found no significant evidence that swapping poultry, fish or shellfish for nuts or legumes reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Replacing poultry with whole grains resulted in a 13% lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

Lead researcher Dr Sabrina Schlesinger from the German Diabetes Centre in Düsseldorf emphasised the potential benefits of replacing animal-based foods with plant-based alternatives.

The research was conducted through systematic review and meta-analysis which offers insights but observational in nature which limits the ability to establish direct causation between food swaps and improved heart and metabolic health.

Media coverage highlighted the key findings, but some headlines focused on eggs as the primary swap when processed meats had a more significant impact on health outcomes.

The study calls for further research to address gaps in understanding, particularly regarding the impact of meat and dairy replacement products, which were not covered in the review.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) supports the findings, emphasising the existing knowledge that reducing red meat and processed meat intake benefits heart health.

Government guidelines in the UK recommend limiting red and processed meat to no more than 70g per day and encourage choosing plant-based proteins more frequently.

While a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy, the BHF notes that a traditional Mediterranean diet, including small amounts of meat along with plant-based proteins like lentils, nuts, seeds and fish, is also linked to reduced heart disease risk.

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