Are all vegetarian diets healthy?

Vegetarian foods are not equally healthy, according to research presented today at ESC Congress 2020.

“Our study highlights the variable nutritional quality of plant foods,” said author Dr. Matina Kouvari of Harokopio University, Athens, Greece. “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.”

Most dietary studies define plant-based diets simply as “vegetarian” or “low in meat”, thereby treating all plant foods as equal. The unique aspect of this study was that it examined the type of plant-based foods consumed, in addition to the overall amount. Healthy plant-based products were principally the least processed foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and tea/coffee. Unhealthy plant-based products consisted of juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, and any kind of sweets (e.g. chocolate, Greek traditional desserts, etc.).

The study examined the link between the amount and quality of plant-based foods and heart health over a 10-year period.

In 2001 and 2002, the ATTICA study randomly selected a sample of adults living in Athens who did not have cardiovascular disease or other chronic conditions. The current analysis was conducted in 146 obese participants with normal blood pressure, blood lipids, and blood sugar. Diet was assessed using a questionnaire about usual habits in the previous year. It listed 156 foods and beverages commonly consumed in Greece, with photographs to help define portion sizes.

Within a decade, nearly half of these obese participants had developed high blood pressure, high blood lipids, and high blood sugar—a combination that is particularly risky for heart health.

Men who consumed more plant-based foods were less likely to have this decline in health status. A trend was also observed in women, but it did not reach statistical significance.

Regarding the quality of plant-based foods, healthier choices were linked with maintaining normal blood pressure, blood lipids, and blood sugar. Conversely, consuming unhealthy plant-based foods was associated with developing high blood pressure, high blood lipids, and high blood sugar. These relationships were stronger in women compared to men.

Dr. Kouvari said: “Eating less meat is beneficial for heart health, particularly when it is replaced with nutritious plant foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil.”

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Scientists ‘re-train’ immune system to prevent attack of healthy cells

The body’s immune system can be re-wired to prevent it from recognizing its own proteins which, when attacked by the body, can cause autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, a significant new study by UK scientists has found.

Autoimmune diseases are caused when the immune system loses its normal focus on fighting infections or disease within and instead begins to attack otherwise healthy cells within the body. In the case of multiple sclerosis (MS), the body attacks proteins in myelin—the fatty insulation-like tissue wrapped around nerves—which causes the nerves to lose control over muscles.

Led by a multi-disciplinary team from the University of Birmingham, scientists examined the intricate mechanisms of the T-cells (or white blood cells) that control the body’s immune system and found that the cells could be ‘re-trained’ to stop them attacking the body’s own cells. In the case of multiple sclerosis, this would prevent the body from attacking the Myelin Basic Protein (MBP) by reprogramming the immune system to recognize the protein as part of itself.

Supported by the Medical Research Council, the two-part study, published today in Cell Reports, was a collaboration between two research groups led by Professor David Wraith from the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy and Professor Peter Cockerill from the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences.

The first stage, led by Professor Wraith showed that the immune system can be tricked into recognizing MBP by presenting it with repeated doses of a highly soluble fragment of the protein that the white blood cells respond to. By repeatedly injecting the same fragment of MBP, the process whereby the immune system learns to distinguish between the body’s own proteins and those that are foreign can be mimicked. The process, which is a similar type of immunotherapy to that previously used to desensitize people against allergies, showed that the white blood cells that recognize MBP switched from attacking the proteins to actually protecting the body.

The second stage, saw gene regulation specialists led by Professor Peter Cockerill probe deep within the white blood cells that react to MBP to show how genes are rewired in response to this form of immunotherapy to fundamentally re-program the immune system. The repeated exposure to the same protein fragment triggered a response that turns on genes that silence the immune system instead of activating it. These cells then had a memory of this exposure to MBP embedded in the genes to stop them setting off an immune response. When T cells are made tolerant, other genes which function to activate the immune system remain silent.

Professor David Wraith said: “These findings have important implications for the many patients suffering from autoimmune conditions that are currently difficult to treat.”

Professor Peter Cockerill, said: “This study has led us to finally understand the underlying basis of immunotherapies which desensitize the immune system”

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