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Scientific Updates /

Health benefits of plant-based eating – the way forward and how to implement it in daily life

02 November 2019


Expert opinion

Proceedings of Alpro Foundation’s scientific session at the 2019 European Federation of the Associations of Dietitians (EFAD) in Berlin. Three researchers presented their original work on the health benefits of adopting plant-based dietary patterns and different strategies to encourage positive dietary behaviour change.


The proceedings of this conference demonstrate the benefits of plant-based eating and discuss different strategies for driving behaviour change towards more plant-based eating patterns. This includes a combination of individual and community-based strategies via the Healthy Lifestyle Community Project in Billerbeck, Germany

Key out-takes from the three presentations

Role of plant-based eating in prevention of obesity and diabetes

Dr. Trudy Voortman, Nutrition Scientist & Epidemiologist at the Dutch Academy for Nutrition Sciences (NAV) and member of the European Nutrition Leadership Platform

Vegan or vegetarian diets versus their non-vegetarian counterparts have been linked to improved weight management, glycaemic control and lower diabetes risk. However, the majority of the general populations do not follow a strict vegan or vegetarian diets.

In the Rotterdam Study Dr Trudy Voortman and her colleagues examined the degree of adherence to a more plant-based dietary pattern and its associations with adiposity over time, insulin sensitivity and type 2 diabetes. The cohort was based in Rotterdam and included 14,926 subjects aged 45 years and older. Follow-up measurements were taken every three to four years.

In order to measure plant-based dietary patterns, a plant-based dietary index was constructed, by categorising food into plant-based or animal-based. Food items from Food Frequency Questionnaires (FFQ) were divided across 23 categories: 12 of which were plant-based and 11 animal-based.

Both groups contained healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains or low-fat dairy and fish as well as unhealthy foods such sweets, sugary beverages or butter and dairy-based desserts. Intake of each food group was divided into population-specific quintiles. A high score represented a high intake of plant food and a low score represented a high intake of animal-based food.

Higher adherence to a plant-based diet was associated with a lower BMI, waist circumference and body fat over time, a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and a lower insulin resistance among non-diabetics. Associations were independent of several other risk factors for adiposity and type 2 diabetes and not driven by specific individual food groups.

In conclusion. A more plant-based diet may help prevent adiposity and type 2 diabetes, beyond strict adherence to a vegetarian or vegan diet. These findings strengthen recent dietary recommendations to adopt a more plant-based diet.

Resetting your body clock with nutrition

Dr Hana Kahleova, Director of clinical research for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

As daylight appears each morning, light intrinsically stimulates photosensitive retinal ganglion cells to transmit signals to the master body clock in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) via the retino-hypothalamic tract. The SCN uses neuroendocrine and autonomic signals to synchronise rhythms in all other tissues including, but not limited to, cardiovascular, hepatic, pancreatic, adipose, and gastrointestinal.

As light decreases at the end of the day, melatonin secretions by the pineal gland quieten the alerting signal, and sleep ensues. A disruption of this 24-h period, called the circadian rhythm, has been associated with metabolic disturbances. Shift workers for example have a higher risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Accumulating evidence suggests that circadian de-synchrony may be an important contributing factor in the development of chronic disease, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. While our central body clock in the hypothalamus in entrained by the light and dark cycle, the peripheral body clock found in each cell of our body needs to be synchronised with the central clock, mainly through nutritional stimuli.

More specifically, this can be achieved through the fasting and feeding cycle, with plant-based nutrition, and through proper meal frequency and timing. As insulin is most effective in the morning, eating breakfast enables us to use the energy from the meal more efficiently than from the same meal eaten later in the day. While snacks seem to disrupt our body clock, eating 2-3 meals a day, with breakfast being the largest meal, and dinner being the lightest meal of the day, is a positive way to synchronize our body clock.

In conclusion. This brings us back to the ancient proverb: Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.

Using the full potential of a plant-based diet – but how to do it? Strategies of the Healthy Lifestyle Community Project in Billerbeck, Germany

Prof. Heike Englert, Professor in the Department of Oecotrophology at the University of Applied Sciences, Munster

As the scientific knowledge about the benefits of a plant-based eating increases, so does the public acceptance of a plant-based diet. Despite meat consumption decreasing in recent years, it still remains one of the most popular foods making it difficult for the full potential of the plant-based eating to be realised.

Essential questions remain unanswered: How do we change dietary habits of individuals? How can we facilitate a plant-based eating for individuals? How better support and direct towards the right dietary decisions?

The most important factors for behaviour change are: repetition, support, trustful settings and motivators.

A federal ministry funded project in a Community of Billerbeck, Germany aimed to better inform and promote key findings from research to the community. The Billerbeck community was made up of approximate 12,000 inhabitants, many with livestock farming backgrounds and thus not surprising, meat consumption was high.

The 10-week project applied community-based lifestyle interventions including seminars, workshops and group activities. For motivation purposes, self-tracking was encouraged through the use of health checks, pedometers and checklists as well as knowledge-based gamification.

Following the 10-week intervention, meat consumption was reduced by 50% compared to baseline and in some cases, 75% meat reductions were achieved. Interviews with the participants demonstrated that the intervention resulted in a clear improvement in knowledge and a more open-minded attitude towards plant-based eating.

The “Healthy Lifestyle Community Project Billerbeck” combines individual behaviour approach with a community setting approach. The results are promising for the transfer of the scientific knowledge about a plant-based diet to communities with consequent positive changes in dietary behaviour.

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