Plant-based diets and incident metabolic syndrome: Results from a South Korean prospective cohort study

Hyunju Kim, Kyueun Lee, Casey M. Rebholz, Jihye Kim

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2 Scopus citations


Background Prior studies have shown that plant-based diets are associated with lower risk of cardiovascular risk factors and incident cardiovascular disease, but risks differed by quality of plant-based diets. No prospective studies have evaluated the associations between different types of plant-based diets and incident metabolic syndrome (MetS) and components of MetS. Furthermore, limited evidence exists in Asian populations who have habitually consumed a diet rich in plant foods for a long period of time. Methods and findings Analyses were based on a community-based cohort of 5,646 men and women (40–69 years of age at baseline) living in Ansan and Ansung, South Korea (2001–2016) without MetS and related chronic diseases at baseline. Dietary intake was assessed using a validated food frequency questionnaire. Using the responses in the questionnaire, we calculated 4 plant-based diet indices (overall plant-based diet index [PDI], healthful plant-based diet index [hPDI], unhealthful plant-based diet index [uPDI], and pro-vegetarian diet index). Higher PDI score represented greater consumption of all types of plant foods regardless of healthiness. Higher hPDI score represented greater consumption of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, tea and coffee) and lower consumption of less-healthy plant foods (refined grains, potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets, salty foods). Higher uPDI represented lower consumption of healthy plant foods and greater consumption of less-healthy plant foods. Similar to PDI, higher pro-vegetarian diet score represented greater consumption of plant foods but included only selected plant foods (grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, potatoes). Higher scores in all plant-based diet indices represented lower consumption of animal foods (animal fat, dairy, eggs, fish/seafood, meat). Over a median follow-up of 8 years, 2,583 participants developed incident MetS. Individuals in the highest versus lowest quintile of uPDI had 50% higher risk of developing incident MetS, adjusting for demographic characteristics and lifestyle factors (hazard ratio [HR]: 1.50, 95% CI 1.31–1.71, P-trend < 0.001). When we further adjusted for body mass index (BMI), those in the highest quintile of uPDI had 24%–46% higher risk of 4 out of 5 individual components of MetS (abdominal obesity, hypertriglyceridemia, low high-density lipoprotein [HDL], and elevated blood pressure) (P-trend for all tests < 0.001). Greater adherence to PDI was associated with lower risk of elevated fasting glucose (HR: 0.80, 95% CI 0.70–0.92, P-trend = 0.003). No consistent associations were observed for other plant-based diet indices and MetS. Limitations of the study may include potential measurement error in self-reported dietary intake, inability to classify a few plant foods as healthy and less-healthy, lack of data on vegetable oil intake, and possibility of residual confounding. Conclusions In this study, we observed that greater adherence to diets consisting of a high intake of refined carbohydrates, sugars, and salty foods in the framework of plant-based diets was associated with an elevated risk of MetS. These results suggest that considering the quality of plant foods is important for prevention of MetS in a population that habitually consumes plant foods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1003371
JournalPLoS medicine
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 18 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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