BACKGROUND: Plant-based diets, often referred to as vegetarian diets, are associated with health benefits. However, the association with mortality is less clear.
OBJECTIVE: We investigated associations between plant-based diet indexes and all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality in a nationally representative sample of US adults.
METHODS: Analyses were based on 11,879 participants (20-80 y of age) from NHANES III (1988-1994) linked to data on all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality through 2011. We constructed an overall plant-based diet index (PDI), which assigns positive scores for plant foods and negative scores for animal foods, on the basis of a food-frequency questionnaire administered at baseline. We also constructed a healthful PDI (hPDI), in which only healthy plant foods received positive scores, and a less-healthful (unhealthy) PDI (uPDI), in which only less-healthful plant foods received positive scores. Cox proportional hazards models were used to estimate the association between plant-based diet consumption in 1988-1994 and subsequent mortality. We tested for effect modification by sex.
RESULTS: In the overall sample, PDI and uPDI were not associated with all-cause or cardiovascular disease mortality after controlling for demographic characteristics, socioeconomic factors, and health behaviors. However, among those with an hPDI score above the median, a 10-unit increase in hPDI was associated with a 5% lower risk in all-cause mortality in the overall study population (HR: 0.95; 95% CI: 0.91, 0.98) and among women (HR: 0.94; 95% CI: 0.88, 0.99), but not among men (HR: 0.95; 95% CI: 0.90, 1.01). There was no effect modification by sex (P-interaction > 0.10).
CONCLUSIONS: A nonlinear association between hPDI and all-cause mortality was observed. Healthy plant-based diet scores above the median were associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality in US adults. Future research exploring the impact of quality of plant-based diets on long-term health outcomes is necessary.