The Economic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Benefits of Plant-Based Diets

Could Plant-Based Diets Cut Healthcare Costs?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Could saving the healthcare system be one of the economic benefits of plant-based diets?

economic benefits of plant-based diets healthcare system costsI don’t need to tell you that our healthcare system is in crisis. Costs are out of control. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates that healthcare costs will account for 25% of the gross domestic product by 2025. They also predict that 47% of that spending will be financed by federal. State, and local governments. That is unsustainable.

Our politicians have no answer. Neither political party has a viable plan to cut costs. Perhaps it is time to take matters into our own hands. What if there were a way to improve our own health and the viability of our healthcare system? A recent study suggests there may be a way to accomplish both goals.

How Was The Study Done?

In a recent study (L. Annemans and J. Schepers, Nutrition, 48: 24-32, 2018 ) scientist at Ghent university in Belgium set out to investigate the effect on public health and healthcare costs if just 10% of the population of Belgium and England switched to a primarily plant-based diet. They started with two diets for which the health benefits have been well established by multiple studies. These diets are:

economic benefits of plant-based diets soy#1: A Soy-Containing Diet: This is defined as a diet in which soy protein foods were consumed in place of animal protein foods more than 5 times per week. The soy foods included in their study were soybeans, tofu, miso, soy protein drinks, and soy yoghurt.

The soy-containing diet was chosen because previous studies have shown it protects against obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and breast, colon, stomach, lung, and prostate cancer.  (Yes. In spite of the erroneous information you find on the internet, soy foods decrease cancer risk.)

#2: The Mediterranean Diet: This is defined as a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and large amounts of olive oil. It includes a moderate to high consumption of fish and other seafood and a low intake of meat and dairy products.

economic benefits of plant-based diets mediterranean dietsThe Mediterranean diet was chosen because previous studies have shown it protects against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and breast cancer. I have documented these health benefits in more detail in my book Slaying The Food Myths.”

This study did not look at the benefits of other plant-based diets. For example, as discussed in “Slaying The Food Myths,” the Seventh-Day Adventist studies have shown comparable health benefit for a variety of vegetarian diets.

This study looked at the prevalence of each of these diseases in Belgium and England and estimated what the effect would be if the prevalence of these diseases were reduced by the amounts reported in previous studies of soy-based and Mediterranean diets.

The study reported two outcomes: the increase in Quality of Life Years (QALYs) and the decrease in healthcare costs. Increased Quality of Life Years simply means the increase in disease-free years. That is the outcome most important to each of us personally. However, we should be equally interested in the decreased healthcare costs. The dollars our government spends on healthcare don’t grow on trees. They come out of our pockets.

 

Economic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets: Decreasing Healthcare Costs?

 

economic benefits of plant-based dietsWith that buildup, you are probably wondering what the outcome of the study was. The news was good:

If 10% of the population switched to a soy-based diet there would be:

  • An increase of 154 Quality of Life Years/1,000 people and a decrease in healthcare costs of $1.9 billion/20 years in Belgium.
  • An increase of 130 Quality of Life Years/1,000 people and a decrease in healthcare costs of $10.7 billion/20 years in England.

If 10% of the population switched to a Mediterranean diet there would be:

  • An increase of 166 Quality of Life Years/1,000 people and a decrease in healthcare costs of $1.6 billion/20 years in Belgium.
  • An increase of 116 Quality of Life Years/1,000 people and a decrease in healthcare costs of $7.4 billion/20 years in England.

[Note: In case you were wondering, the authors said the reason why plant-based diets had less of an effect on Quality of Life Years in England than in Belgium is because public health interventions have already significantly decreased the incidence of heart attack and stroke in England. Conversely, the reason healthcare savings are higher in England is because healthcare costs are higher there.]

Finally, if one were to extrapolate the British healthcare savings to the costs of the US healthcare system, one would predict:

  • If 10% of the US population were to switch to a soy-based diet, healthcare savings might amount to $17 billion/20 years.
  • If 10% of the US population were to switch to a Mediterranean diet, healthcare savings might amount to $12 billion/20 years.

The authors concluded: “The result of the present analysis suggests that both a soy-containing diet and the Mediterranean diet could contribute to health promotion because they are predicted to lead to substantial health benefits and societal savings.”

How Accurate Are These Estimates?

The benefits of soy-based and Mediterranean diets on which these estimates are based are very solid. The benefits are based on association studies, but the studies are very well done and are remarkably consistent.

The major weakness of these estimates is the benefits of these diets have been demonstrated in other parts of the world and are being extrapolated to a region of the world where neither of those diets are commonly followed. The authors tried very hard to control for all confounding variables, but the possibility remains that lifestyle differences unique to those geographic regions also contributed to the health benefits of soy-based and Mediterranean diets.

The authors acknowledged that some of the foods that are normally part of soy-based and Mediterranean diets were not as readily available in Belgium and England. They raised the possibility that something like the “New Nordic Diet”, which is also primarily plant-based but incorporates more familiar foods, might be equally effective. The equivalent diet in the US might be the DASH diet.

The economic benefits of plant-based diets may not depend so much on the diet, as long as it is plant-based and those foods are readily available.

 

The Bottom Line:

 

A recent study looked at the effect of a plant-based diet on Quality Of Life Years (disease free years) and healthcare costs in Belgium and England. The study estimated:

If 10% of the population switched to a soy-based diet there would be:

  • An increase of 154 Quality of Life Years/1,000 people and a decrease in healthcare costs of $1.9 billion/20 years in Belgium.
  • An increase of 130 Quality of Life Years/1,000 people and a decrease in healthcare costs of $10.7 billion/20 years in England.

If 10% of the population switched to a Mediterranean diet there would be:

  • An increase of 166 Quality of Life Years/1,000 people and a decrease in healthcare costs of $1.6 billion/20 years in Belgium.
  • An increase of 116 Quality of Life Years/1,000 people and a decrease in healthcare costs of $7.4 billion/20 years in England.

If one were to extrapolate the British healthcare savings to the costs of the US healthcare system, one would predict:

  • If 10% of the US population were to switch to a soy-based diet, healthcare savings might amount to $17 billion/20 years.
  • If 10% of the US population were to switch to a Mediterranean diet, healthcare savings might amount to $12 billion/20 years.

The authors concluded: “The result of the present analysis suggests that both a soy-containing diet and the Mediterranean diet could contribute to health promotion because they are predicted to lead to substantial health benefits and societal savings.”

For more details, read the article above:

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

Posted November 6, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Microbiome Mysteries

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

is our microbiome affected by exerciseIn a recent post,  What is Your Microbiome and Why is it Important,  of “Health Tips From The Professor” I outlined how our microbiome, especially the bacteria that reside in our intestine, influences our health. That influence can be either good or bad depending on which species of bacteria populate our gut. I also discussed how the species of bacteria that populate our gut are influenced by what we eat and, in turn, influence how the foods we eat are metabolized.

I shared that there is an association between obesity and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. At present, this is a “chicken and egg” conundrum. We don’t know whether obesity influences the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut, or whether certain species of gut bacteria cause us to become obese.

Previous studies have shown that there is also an association between exercise and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. In particular, exercise is associated with an increase in bacteria that metabolize fiber in our diets to short chain fatty acids such as butyrate. That is potentially important because butyrate is a primary food source for intestinal mucosal cells (the cells that line the intestine). Butyrate helps those cells maintain the integrity of the gut barrier (which helps prevent things like leaky gut syndrome). It also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the immune cells that reside in the gut.

However, associations don’t prove cause and effect. We don’t know whether the differences in gut bacteria were caused by differences in diet or leanness in populations who exercised regularly and those who did not. This is what the present study (JM Allen et al, Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 50: 747-757, 2018 ) was designed to clarify.  Is our microbiome affected by exercise?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

is our microbiome affected by exercise studyThis study was performed at the University of Illinois. Thirty-two previously sedentary subjects (average age = 28) were recruited for the study. Twenty of them were women and 12 were men. Prior to starting the study, the participants filled out a 7-day dietary record. They were asked to follow the same diet throughout the 12-week study. In addition, a dietitian designed a 3-day food menu based on their 7-day recall for the participants to follow prior to each fecal collection to determine species of gut bacteria.

The study included a two-week baseline when their baseline gut bacteria population was measured, and participants were tested for fitness. This was followed by a 6-week exercise intervention consisting of three supervised 30 to 60-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week. The exercise was adapted to the participant’s initial fitness level, and both the intensity and duration of exercise increased over the 6-week exercise intervention. Following the exercise intervention, all participants were instructed to maintain their diet and refrain from exercise for another 6 weeks. This was referred to as the “washout period.”

VO2max (a measure of fitness) was determined at baseline and at the end of the exercise intervention. Stool samples for determination of gut bacteria and concentrations of short-chain fatty acids were taken at baseline, at the end of the exercise intervention, and again after the washout period.

In short, this study divided participants into lean and obese categories and held diet constant. The only variable was the exercise component.

 

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

is our microbiome affected by exercise fitnessThe results of the study were as follows:

  • Fitness, as assessed by VO2max, increased for all the participants, and the increase in fitness was comparable for both lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise induced a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise increased fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids in the lean subjects, but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were largely reversed once exercise training ceased.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent of diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.” [Note: To be clear, the exercise-induced changes in both gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were independent of diet and contingent on the sustainment of exercise. However, only the production of short-chain fatty acids was dependent on obesity status.]

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

is our microbiome affected by exercise gut bacteriaThere are two important take home lessons from this study.

  • With respect to our gut bacteria, I have consistently told you that microbiome research is an emerging science. This is a small study, so you should regard it as the beginning of our understanding of the effect of exercise on our microbiome rather than conclusive by itself. It is consistent with previous studies showing an association between exercise and a potentially beneficial shift in the population of gut bacteria.

The strength of the study is that it shows that exercise-induced changes in beneficial gut bacteria are probably independent of diet. However, it is the first study to look at the interaction between obesity, exercise and gut bacteria, so I would interpret those results with caution until they have been replicated in subsequent studies.

  • With respect to exercise, this may be yet another reason to add regular physical activity to your healthy lifestyle program. We already know that exercise is important for cardiovascular health. We also know that exercise increases lean muscle mass which increases metabolic rate and helps prevent obesity. There is also excellent evidence that exercise improves mood and helps prevent cognitive decline as we age.

Exercise is also associated with decreased risk of colon cancer and irritable bowel disease. This effect of exercise has not received much attention because the mechanism of this effect is unclear. This study shows that exercise increases the fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids. Perhaps, this provides the mechanism for the interaction between exercise and intestinal health.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study has reported that:

  • Exercise induces a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise causes an increase in the number of gut bacteria that produce butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids that are beneficial for gut health.
  • These effects are independent of diet, but do not appear to be independent of obesity because they were seen in lean subjects but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production are largely reversed once exercise training ceases.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent on diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.”

For more details and my interpretation of the data, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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