photo of tabletop laid with plant-based dishesShare on Pinterest
Not all plant-based diets are equal when it comes to their potential influence over Parkinson’s disease risk. Image credit: Diane Durongpisitkul/Stocksy
  • Parkinson’s disease is a common progressive neurological disorder, marked by tremors, bradykinesia, depression, and limitations in motor and cognitive function.
  • Citing scarce evidence tying eating patterns to Parkinson’s disease, European researchers set out to assess the potential effect of healthy and unhealthy plant-based foods on the risk for this disease.
  • The team scrutinized the eating patterns of more than 100,000 people, finding a remarkable correlation between eating healthy plant-based foods and reduced Parkinson’s disease risk.
  • Experts were impressed ‘to see that simple dietary modifications could play a role in reducing the incidence of one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases worldwide.’

Parkinson’s disease is the fastest-growing neurological disorder in disability and deaths, affecting 1% of adults over 60 in industrialized countries. As global populations increase and age, health experts expect prevalence to spread.

Since Parkinson’s disease currently has no cure, prevention strategies are urgently needed. Some of the known primary risk factors, including age and genetics, are non-modifiable, while others, such as chemical exposure, are difficult to modify.

Thus, experts are exploring the possibility of dietary and lifestyle choices as manipulable factors in staving off or treating Parkinson’s disease and related neurological diseases.

A team of European researchers analyzed the diets of over 100,000 individuals, searching for a link between plant-based eating patterns and Parkinson’s disease onset.

Their findings concluded that eating healthy plant-based foods could significantly reduce Parkinson’s disease risk for some people.

The results were published in Movement Disorders.

Numerous studies have investigated the potential neuroprotective features of nutrients, foods, and dietary patterns.

Certain vitamins have been thought to reduce Parkinson’s disease risk, but long-term studies and meta-analyses have rendered inconclusive results.

Research now includes dietary patterns that consider overall food consumption and the possible synergistic effects of food constituents.

The traditional Mediterranean diet and vegetarian diets, which include fiber and bioactive components, show potential to curtail cognitive impairment by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.

In the report “Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems”, the EAT-Lancet Commission advocates plant-based eating for human and planetary benefits.

Not all plant-based foods are healthy, though. Some unhealthy plant-based foods could include fruit juices with added sugar and other sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, sweets, and other plant-based ultra-processed foods.

Refined grains and refined sugars in ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of certain chronic diseases. These products are associated with diabetes, obesity, and cancers.

A European research team set out to find connections between healthy and unhealthy eating patterns and the incidence of Parkinson’s disease throughout a large population.

Dr. Ana Tresserra-Rimbau of the Polyphenol Research group at Universitat de Barcelona in Spain, and fellow researchers examined a massive national database for Parkinson’s disease incidence among different plant-based diets.

They performed a prospective study among 126,283 participants from the UK Biobank, an ongoing national health depository. It maintains health and genetic information on over 500,000 participants in the United Kingdom.

Approximately 56% of the UK Biobank subjects analyzed in the present study were female with an average age of 56 years. Study participants were also predominantly white, and they had a mean body mass index (BMI) of 26.7.

To reduce the risk of reverse causality, the researchers excluded people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease before their last 24-hour dietary assessment.

The participants completed the Oxford WebQ dietary questionnaire, submitting 24-hour dietary records based on 17 food groups. They answered questions about consuming standard portions of approximately 200 foods and 30 beverages over the past 24 hours.

The researchers further subdivided the initial 17 groups into three main food groups: healthy plant foods, unhealthy plant foods, and animal foods. Alcoholic drinks and margarine were excluded from the evaluation.

The study authors then calculated three plant-based diet indexes based on the subdivision: an overall plant-based diet index, a healthy plant-based diet index, and an unhealthy plant-based diet index.

Dr. Tresserra-Rimbau and her team explained:

“To sum up, higher values of [the overall plant-based diet index] reflect a diet rich in plant-based foods regardless of the type; higher scores of [the healthy plant-based diet index] reflect a diet with greater amount of healthy plant-based foods, and finally, higher scores of the [unhealthy plant-based diet index] are associated to unhealthy plant-based diets. All of them, however, reflect lower intake of animal-based foods.”

They included incident Parkinson’s disease cases defined in the UK’s Hospital Inpatient and Death Registry.

Over 11.8 years of follow-up, the researchers noticed 577 cases of Parkinson’s disease.

Subjects in the highest healthy plant-based diet index quartile demonstrated a 22% lower Parkinson’s disease risk. Those in the highest overall plant-based diet index quartile demonstrated an 18% lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

On the other hand, participants in a higher unhealthy plant-based diet index had a 38% higher Parkinson’s disease risk.

In food-based analyses, higher consumption of vegetables, nuts, and tea was associated with a respective 28%, 31%, and 25% lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

The authors concluded that “[f]ollowing a healthful plant-based diet and in particular the inclusion of readily achievable intakes of vegetables, nuts and tea in the habitual diet are associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.”

Medical News Today discussed this study with Kelsey Costa, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the National Coalition on Healthcare, not involved in the research.

Overall, she praised the research, noting that “[t]his study excels with a prospective design, a considerable sample size, and a broad data set on diet, risk factors, and confounders for Parkinson’s disease risk.”

However, Costa also noted various shortcomings, including the study’s use of hospital admissions instead of self-reported data for diagnosing Parkinson’s disease. She saw the use of self-reported dietary information as a limitation as well.

Furthermore, the dietitian told MNT that:

“While categorizing food items into healthy and unhealthy groups was based on established research, it omitted details on specific foods and didn’t account for variations in preparation techniques, which could potentially influence their health impact.”

She also brought up that, due to the specific characteristics of the study population, the results “should be cautiously interpreted” to other groups.

Medical consultant and researcher Dr. Elena Salagean, not involved in this study, shared with MNT her opinion that this research could help improve our understanding of the ways in which diet may help reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s.

“Overall I think this study represents a useful advancement in our understanding of the relationship between dietary intake and Parkinson’s disease risk,” she told us.

Nevertheless, like Costa, she also expressed concern about using hospital admissions data exclusively: “Inappropriate coding or lack of medical history could miss some existing cases so the total number of cases could be an underestimate.”

And Dr. Salagean also felt that the study should have factored in cooking methods, which can have a great impact on the health effects of foods.

Overall though, she felt encouraged “to see that simple dietary modifications could play a role in reducing the incidence of one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases worldwide, and these findings are certainly worth taking into consideration.”