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WHO praises benefits of plant-based diets but warns against UPFs and nutrient deficiencies

Young woman with glasses smiling
3 min read
AUTHOR: Molly Long
bowl of barley and vegetables

In response to the growing number of people exploring a more plant-based lifestyle, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) European Office has released a report assessing the facts currently known about the diet. 

Largely in support of the lifestyle, the report suggests habits commonly associated with the diet – like high fruit and vegetable consumption – can help protect against noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and strokes. 

The aspiration for healthier living and a healthier environment is changing people’s diets across the WHO European Region – and that is wonderful,” says Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Acting Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases. 

However, the report does suggest there are some weaker elements of the plant-based diet – in particular surrounding macro and micronutrients. 

Achieving sufficient amounts of some micronutrients is easier than others – iron, vitamin A and zinc for example can be consumed properly through a well-planned diet. 

However other micronutrients, like vitamin D and vitamin B12, which are most commonly found in animal sources, are harder to come by in a plant-based diet.

The WHO urges people to be aware of potential micronutrient deficiencies and act accordingly. A multivitamin targeted at vegans or plant-based eaters is a good place to start. 

Plant-based eaters should also approach meat substitutes with some caution, the report says. While they serve a purpose, particularly among those transitioning from eating meat, the organisation categorises many as ultra-processed foods (UPFs). 

This means they have “a high energy density and tend to be higher in sodium, saturated fat and free sugars, and lacking in dietary fibre and in vitamins and minerals found in unprocessed foods,” according to the organisation.  

Several scientific studies referenced in the report suggest such foods can have negative health impacts, ranging from diabetes to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Another recent study linked UPFs to childhood obesity. 

A report from late 2021 similarly found many plant-based meats have a high salt content – however the same study also found such alternatives had healthier nutrient profiles than their meat equivalents overall. 

Major blind spots remain when it comes to the nutritional composition of these products, and how they contribute to dietary quality and diversity in the WHO European Region,” says Dr Wickramasinghe. “This lack of information prevents governments from forming effective policy guidance, with potential consequences for population health.”

To ameliorate this, the WHO report recommends focusing a plant-based diet around whole foods, like fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains. 

Overall, the WHO says it can be beneficial for those wanting to transition to a plant-based diet to do so incrementally. Additionally, diets “in which meat is not necessarily excluded but is not the central feature” are advisable. 

For those wishing to eschew all animal foods, the WHO report recommends “healthful, well-planned plant-based meals” are the best way to get the right levels of micronutrients into the body.