Not all plant-based diets are the same: Junk veggie food and its impact on health

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Plant-based diets continue to grow in popularity for their many health benefits, including lower risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. However, not all plant-based diets are equal, and some eating habits may cause more harm than good. In this Honest Nutrition feature, we explain all you need to know about eating a healthful plant-based diet.

Written by Amber Charles Alexis, MSPH, RDN on August 23, 2022 — Fact checked by Hannah Flynn This series of Special Features takes an in-depth look at the science behind some of the most debated nutrition-related topics, weighing in on the facts and debunking the myths.

Daily health news, delivered Feed your curiosity with the latest in medical science by signing up for our newsletter. While vegan diets exclude all animal products, vegetarian options — which exclude just meat and fish — are more diverse and may include dairy and eggs. Pescatarian diets exclude meat, but not fish.

Plant-based diets continue to grow in popularity worldwide owing to decades of scientific research and the mounting evidenceTrusted Source of their potential health benefits, not limited to improved blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

Furthermore, increased awareness of the environmental impact of animal rearing, such as high levels of greenhouse gases, land degradation, and excessive water have also motivatedTrusted Source some people to adopt plant-based diets, which can be more environmentally friendly.

However, there are some health risks associated with some plant-based diets, particularly if there is high consumption of “junk” veggie foods.

What are ‘junk’ plant-based foods? By definition, ultra-processed foodsTrusted Source are food products that contain minimal whole foods, are high in calories, added sugar, salt, and fats, offer little nutritional value, and have been processed with cheap industrial additives.

Using the NOVA classification system, which categorizes food products according to the extent of industrial processes they undergo, “junk” foods can includeTrusted Source many plant-based products, such as:commercially-produced breads, pastries, cakes, and cookies carbonated beverages pre-packaged snacks flavored dairy drinks breakfast cereals energy bars instant sauces, soups, noodle pots, and desserts. Health risks Ultra-processed foods offer convenience, continue to replace minimally processed whole foods, and now account for more than half Trusted Source of the daily intake of calories for many individuals in middle- and high-income countries. While a healthy and balanced plant-based diet is diverse, the frequent consumption of plant-based ultra-processed foods is associated with negative health outcomes.

For instance, in a 2019 cohort studyTrusted Source that followed 105,159 adults over a 5-year period, the researchers observed that even a 10% increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

This small increase in ultra-processed foods is also associated with a higher risk of developing some cancersTrusted Source, type 2 diabetesTrusted Source, and increased exposure to harmful chemicalsTrusted Source from food packages.

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