Experts discuss benefits and challenges of plant-based diets along the life cycle.
What follows is part of a series of reports on presentations given at the Seventh International Congress of Vegetarian Nutrition in Loma Linda, California, United States, from February 26-28, 2018. Individual stories provide a summary of various topics covered and the presentations made throughout the event. ~ Adventist Review Editors
For Seventh-day Adventists, it may not be a big surprise to hear about the importance of prenatal influences on the life of the future baby. After all, it was Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G. White who penned over a century ago, “It is an error generally committed to make no difference in the life of a woman previous to the birth of her children. At this important period, the labor of the mother should be lightened. Great changes are going on in her system. It requires a greater amount of blood, and therefore an increase of food of the most nourishing quality to convert into blood. Unless she has an abundant supply of nutritious food, she cannot retain her physical strength, and her offspring is robbed of vitality” (Adventist Home, p. 256).
For many it may be reassuring, however, to learn how contemporary scientific research is backing up White’s prescient statement.
Pregnancy Health and Childhood Obesity
“Maternal diet and lifestyle during pregnancy may have a direct effect on fetal growth, but also long-term effects on growth or body composition,” said Trudy Voortman, professor and researcher from the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. It is what science now calls ‘fetal programming.’
Against the backdrop of increasing childhood obesity around the world, it is important to focus not only on lifestyle during childhood but also on early-life influences which, she said, “shape the trajectory of weight gain and body fatness throughout the life course.”
As an example, Voortman shared an overview of the scientific evidence of potential effects of plant-based diets during pregnancy on offspring’s growth and obesity. She said that while a connection between B12 and D vitamins could not be established, higher maternal protein intake is associated with a higher child fat-free mass later in life. There was not a significant difference between the source —vegetal or animal— of the proteins.
“No independent associations between maternal dietary patterns and obesity were found,” said Voortman. It means not only diet but every aspect of maternal and child health must be taken into account, as good health is not the result of just one aspect, she reminded.
“Child lifestyle may be more important than just the mother eating plant-based foods, even though it is an issue that deserves further studies,” she said.
An Essential Acid for Gestation and Infancy
University of Kansas professor Susan E. Carlson discussed the essential role of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) intake during pregnancy and infancy. It is a subject of utmost importance, she said, not only for its proven benefits to the brain development of the infant but also because DHA is not found in plants but mostly in fish and eggs.
DHA transfer to the baby is natural in breastfeeding, but for many years, not available in formula preparations. “At the same time, DHA presence in breast milk is variable around the world, and depends on the mother’s diet,” Carlson said.
Carlson explained that prenatal DHA supplementation has shown positive effects such as reduction in preterm births, tolerance to stress, reduced wheeze/asthma, and higher lean body mass, among others. “Studies have shown that infant cortisol response to face stress was decreased, and BHA supplementation prevented an increase in systolic blood pressure in children who became overweight or obese,” she said. “They also showed higher cognition and reduced allergies in children long after long after supplementation was stopped.”
But then, what is an expectant mother on a plant-based diet to do?
Carlson recommended algae-based DHA supplements, which are a natural way for mothers-to-be to make sure their babies will be ‘programmed’ for better outcomes later in life.
“Algae-based supplements can be easily incorporated to a plant-based diet, with optimum results,” she said.
Nuts, As We Grow Older
“Promoting healthy aging is of utmost importance,” said Aleix Sala-Villa, from the Lipid Clinic in Barcelona, Spain. “And there is mounting evidence that the shortening of telomeres, the structures that help to maintain genome stability, leads to senescence of some cells.”
Accordingly, Sala-Villa said that contemporary studies in the field have set out to measure telomere length as a marker of biological aging, as “telomeres are highly susceptible to oxidative stress, and therefore plausible targets for diets rich in plant-derived foods rich in antioxidants.”
Sala-Villa applied this knowledge to a research project aimed at testing the effects of walnut consumption on age-related cognitive decline and macular degeneration in free-living elders. The study concluded that “subjects whose diets are rich in plant-derived foods showed maintained telomere length,” and that “the vegetarian dietary pattern appears to be a good approach to preserve telomere length,” thus delaying aging.
In this regard, Sala-Villa concluded that, for healthy aging, “even small [dietary and lifestyle] changes, if in the right direction, produce significant results. And it’s never too late to start implementing these changes.”
Can Vegetarians Have Strong Bones?
Voortman returned for a second presentation later on February 26, where she discussed “Plant-based Diets and Bone Health Across the Life Course.” Peak bone mass is reached in young adulthood and depends in part on diet in early life affecting bone mass accrual, she said. At the same time, diet in later life can help limit bone loss and prevent osteoporosis and lower fracture risk. It is of utmost importance, since data show osteoporosis affects 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over 50.
Bone health is affected by calcium absorption, but also by interactions with other elements such as vitamin D and fiber, said Voortman. It is the reason a more comprehensive approach is advisable.
“In both research and public health advice, the focus is placed on the importance of specific nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D and foods such as dairy for bone health,” she said. “Although studies on single nutrients have provided important insights…investigating overall dietary patterns has additional benefits.”
Voortman then shared a large study in the Netherlands where researchers measured variation in the degree of having a plant-based versus an animal-based diet in different phases of life, and its effects on bone health over time.
“In infants and children, the dietary pattern best predicting better bone mass measurements was high in whole grains, nuts, dairy, vegetables, and eggs,” she said. “Results showed that ovo-lacto-vegetarians and non-vegetarians had similar BMD. Vegans, on the other hand, showed a greater fracture risk than non-vegetarians.”
Overall, Voortman shared that both ends —a completely plant-based diet or a completely animal-based diet— measured lower in bone mass as people got older.
“The optimal point seems to be somewhere in the middle,” she said.