Published in the April 2019 issue of the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, the community-based cohort study determined that consuming healthy plant-based diets may lead to a significantly reduced risk of developing chronic kidney disease (CKD). The researchers observed almost 15,000 middle-aged men and women enrolled in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study over the course of a 24-year median follow-up to evaluate the associations between plant-based diets and the development of CKD in a general population. Furthermore, they aimed to examine changes in kidney function over 20 years within a general population.
The study is one of the latest entries in a growing body of knowledge and evidence regarding the potential of plant-based diets to prevent CKD, including a study done in 2017 that discovered a significant reduction in CKD risk when replacing one serving of red and processed meats with a serving of plant-based protein sources.
Led by Hyunju Kim and Casey M. Rebholz, Ph.D. from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the research team conducted a 24-year median follow-up wherein 4,343 new CKD events occurred. They concluded that participants with the highest adherence to a healthy plant-based diet saw a 14 percent decrease in CKD risk compared to those with the lowest adherence. In contrast, participants whose adherence was highest toward less healthy plant-based diets saw an 11 percent higher risk of CKD.
The researchers defined healthy plant-based diets as diets rich in vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruits, and nuts. On the other hand, less healthy plant-based diets were described to include highly refined grains, fruit juices, as well as sugar-sweetened and artificially-sweetened beverages.
The researchers linked plant-based diets with a slower decline of estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR), a test to measure the level of kidney function and the progress of kidney disease.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to report associations between plant-based diets and prospective risk of eGFR decline and CKD in the general population,” said Kim.
The researchers pointed out that the consumption of healthy plant-based diets (as defined above) is important in reducing the risk of CKD as less healthy plant based diets may replace these foods with refined grains and potatoes – food groups that are associated with higher risk of hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.
Healthy plant-based diets also have a lower dietary acid load and higher amounts of micronutrients such as calcium and potassium. The researchers mentioned that a high dietary acid load is directly associated with a high risk of CKD. Additionally, a high intake of micronutrients has been shown to assist in regulating metabolism and reduce the effects of inflammation.
The study also suggested that fiber intake could be a contributing factor to lower CKD risk due to the high fiber consumption involved in healthy plant-based diets. Fiber also reduces the risk of CKD by weakening its risk factors, as well as those of hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.
“Our results showed that increasing consumption of healthful plant foods is important—for example, choosing whole grains instead of refined grains and choosing whole fruits instead of fruit juice,” said Rebholz.
Plant-based diets have been shown to support the health of the mind and body in many ways. For one, plenty of studies have indicated that following a plant-based diet is beneficial for weight loss. A review of 12 trials that included more than 1,100 people discovered that those who were assigned to a plant-based diet or vegetarian diet saw a significant loss in weight – around two kilograms over a median duration of 18 weeks – compared to those who were assigned a non-vegetarian diet.
Plant-based diets have also been linked to a reduced risk of other chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Finally, adopting a plant-based diet has been shown to protect against age-related cognitive decline.
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