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Plant-Based Diet Benefits Black Health

Research shows the benefits of a plant-based diet in fighting heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Racial injustice has highlighted systemic disparities in health care, risk, and death among Black populations in the nation’s top causes of death, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and brain health.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African American adults are 60% more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician, 20% more likely to die from heart disease, 40% more likely to have high blood pressure, 50% more likely to have a stroke, and have the highest mortality rate of any racial and ethnic group for all cancers combined and for most major cancers.

These health disparities are a result of systemic racism and unfair disadvantages against the Black community, including a lack of access to medical coverage and medical care, poorer treatment within the medical system, lack of representation in clinical trials, lack of medical career opportunities for minorities and a resulting lack of diversity among health care providers, biased federal nutrition policy, and a lack of resources, opportunity, and access to healthy food.

Nutrition’s Role

The Journal of the American Heart Association published a review co-authored by Kim Williams Sr., MD—who was the first African American president of the American College of Cardiology and began eating a vegan diet in 2003 for his heart health—that specifically looked at the underlying health disparities that contribute to heart disease in the United States. The review summarizes research behind diet, one of the top modifiable risk factors for heart disease, and the disproportionate effects of racial, economic, and social disparities on diet quality.

These issues need to be addressed with policy and public health measures that ensure greater access to fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans, which have been shown to help prevent and reverse heart disease, as well as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and cancer. Several studies have specifically looked at the health benefits of a plant-based diet for African Americans.

Diabetes and Heart Health

According to a research published in Circulation, plant-based diets have been shown to lower the risk for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) among African Americans. Researchers tracked ASCVD risk for volunteers who consumed a low-sodium, vegan diet for five weeks. Those who completed the trial showed an almost 20% reduction in their 10-year average risk for heart attacks.

Another study looked at the dietary habits of 592 African American participants from the Adventist Health Study-2 and categorized them into three eating patterns: vegetarian/vegan, pesco-vegetarian, and nonvegetarian. Those who consumed a vegetarian/vegan diet had fewer heart disease risk factors including lower blood pressure, half the risk of diabetes, and a 44% reduced risk for hypertension. Vegetarians and vegans were also 43% less likely to be obese, compared with nonvegetarians.

Cancer

The Adventist Health Study-2 has also shown the benefit of a plant-based diet for lowering the risk of cancer and death from any cause. Researchers compared all-cause mortality and cancer incidence rates in Seventh-day Adventist participants, who often follow a plant-based diet, with the general U.S. population documented in census data. Early death and cancer incidence rates were lower among Black study participants by 36% and 22%, respectively, compared with Black people in the census data. Studies have also shown the benefits of consuming more plants in lowering the risk of breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers.

Addressing Health Disparities

“Racism is a public health emergency of global concern. It is the root cause of continued disparities in death and disease between Black and white people in the USA." Those are the words of health care experts in an editorial published online in The Lancet in June 2020.

The authors note that, in order to work against structural racist policies and institutions throughout society, the medical system has a role to play to both centralize minority voices and act to reinforce issued statements of support for racial justice. Suggestions include increased recruitment of medical students from diverse backgrounds, education among clinicians on issues of race, highlighted research on subjects of race and health disparities in medical journals, and support of these initiatives from health care workers. 

In addition to structural changes in the health care system, these issues must be addressed with policy changes and public health measures that ensure greater access to healthful foods—including fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans—which have been shown to help address chronic health problems.

Kim Williams, MD, on Vegan Diets and Heart Health