Plant-based diet may lower Parkinson’s risk

UK study reinforces the benefits of a healthy diet, especially for older folks

Steve Bryson, PhD avatar

by Steve Bryson, PhD |

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This illustration depicts a variety of foods one might find in a healthy diet.

Adhering to healthy plant-based dietary patterns was associated with a reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, especially among older people, according to a large-scale U.K. study.

A higher intake of vegetables, nuts, and tea in the regular diet is linked to the lowest Parkinson’s risk, data show.

“These results are important to help refine and inform public health messages that consider plant-based diets and provide evidence that simple dietary change has the potential to reduce [Parkinson’s disease] risk,”  researchers wrote in the study “Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Parkinson’s Disease: A Prospective Analysis of the UK Biobank,” published in the journal Movement Disorders.

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Plant-based diets are known to reduce the risk of several chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. This is likely due to the high levels of nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants found in plant-based foods, as well as the lower levels of saturated fat.

Still, little is known about the relationship between plant-based diets and Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by tremors, stiffness, and difficulty with movement.

“The identification of modifiable [Parkinson’s disease] risk factors such as dietary and lifestyle factors may open new avenues for primary [Parkinson’s disease] prevention,” wrote researchers at Queen’s University Belfast, in the U.K.

The team accessed U.K. Biobank data, a large long-term study in the U.K. investigating the influence of genetics and environment on disease development. Among the more than 500,000 study participants, 126,283 individuals (55.9% women) were available for this analysis. During the 11.8 years of follow-up, 577 participants were diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Using the Oxford WebQ dietary questionnaire, participants were asked about the consumption — frequency and amount — of about 200 foods and 30 drinks over 24 hours.

Foods included in the healthy, unhealthy categories

Healthy plant foods included whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, protein alternatives, and tea and coffee. Unhealthy plant foods included fruit juices, refined grains, potatoes, sugar-based beverages, sweets, and desserts. The animal food category encompassed animal fat, dairy, eggs, fish or seafood, meat, and other animal-derived foods.

Researchers divided diets into three categories based on 17 food groups: an overall plant-based diet index (PDI), a healthful plant-based diet index (hPDI), and an unhealthful plant-based diet index (uPDI).

Higher PDI scores reflected a diet rich in plant-based foods, high hPDI values indicated a diet with more healthy plant-based foods, while higher uPDI scores were associated with unhealthy plant-based diets. All diets reflected a lower intake of animal-based foods, the team noted.

Scores then were divided into quartiles, meaning the highest quartile (Q4) represented the top 25% of index scores, while the lowest quartile (Q1) was the bottom 25% of scores.

Higher hPDI and PDI scores (more plant-based foods) and lower uPDI scores (less unhealthy foods) occurred more often among participants who were older, more physically active, had lower body mass index (body fat content), and were non-smokers. Higher education levels and household income also were associated with more plant-based foods.

The highest quartile of hPDI scores with the most healthy plant-based foods consumed was associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s compared with the lowest hPDI quartile. Likewise, higher PDI scores were linked with a reduced Parkinson’s risk, more prominently among those in the third PDI quartile.

Participants in the highest uPDI quartile, reflecting a more unhealthy plant-based diet, had a 38% higher risk of developing Parkinson’s than those in the lowest quartile (less unhealthy foods).

Secondary analysis examined genetic factors

A secondary analysis was preformed and adjusted for polygenic risk scores, which measure Parkinson’s risk due to genetic factors. Here, the risk of Parkinson’s was 25% lower for those in the highest versus lowest hPDI qualities, 18% lower for PDI, and 41% higher for uPDI.

Regarding specific foods, those with the highest vegetable intake had a 28% lower risk of Parkinson’s compared to the lowest vegetable intake. Similarly, participants who ate the most nuts were 31% less likely to develop the neurodegenerative disorder. While the tea and coffee combined category showed similar results, only a higher tea intake was linked with a 25% lower Parkinson’s risk.

Subgroup analyses showed that the association between hPDI scores and Parkinson’s was significant only for those with higher education, former and current smokers, and lower genetic risk, “suggesting that dietary approaches may benefit only those without genetic risks,” the researchers wrote.

The relationship between higher hDPI scores and lower Parkinson’s risk strengthened even further when participants younger than 60 years were excluded (because Parkinson’s is more common among older people). When only healthy plant-based foods were considered, there was a 38% lower risk of Parkinson’s.

“Our novel study strengthens the knowledge around the health benefits of adhering to healthy plant-based dietary patterns, in this case, providing novel data that higher adherence reduces [Parkinson’s disease] risk,” the researchers concluded.