How a Plant-Based Diet Can Help Reduce Racial Health Disparities

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Why are Black Americans sicker and die younger than their white counterparts, and what can we do about it?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the death rate for African Americans was as much as six times higher than white America. The higher Black pandemic deaths placed a harsh spotlight on their longstanding higher mortality and diminished longevity in general. Unfortunately, diminished African American life expectancy predates the COVID-19 pandemic by decades. The Black-white death gap for women is about three years, and for men, closer to five years.

The COVID-19 death disparities may have to do with limited access to healthy food in predominantly Black communities, the housing density, the need to work or else, the inability to practice social distancing, but also the underlying burden of ill health. Increased COVID-19 mortality and complications occur more often in individuals with pre-existing conditions like hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease––comorbidities that are more prevalent in African Americans. More high blood pressure, more diabetes, more strokes, more likely to die at early ages from all causes put together. The question is why. Why do Black Americans live sicker and die younger than their white counterparts?

Well, one big factor is socioeconomic status. In the United States, race is closely tied to class, with African Americans about twice as likely to be living in poverty. On average, education levels are lower as well; however, even among African Americans whose socioeconomic status is comparable to that of whites, despite the higher education and more socioeconomic resources, health outcomes are still poorer. Part of that has to do with lifestyle behaviors. For example, fewer than 5 percent of African American adults met physical activity guidelines. Smoking rates are actually comparable, though African Americans tend to be exposed to more second-hand smoke and have lower quit rates. This may be because they’re more likely to use menthol cigarettes, which enhance the addictive potential of nicotine. Why menthols? Because tobacco companies target the marketing of mentholated products to African Americans. Black lives…Black lung.

Similarly, if you look at food messages on African American television shows, not only does Black prime time contain a greater number of food commercials, African American audiences may be receiving nearly three times as many advertisements for low-nutrient junk such as candy and soda. That may be one reason why African Americans tend to consume fewer fresh fruits and vegetables, and are more likely to eat junkier foods.

Of course, where are you going to get those fresh fruits and vegetables? There are fewer supermarkets located in Black neighborhoods compared with white neighborhoods––as in four times fewer supermarkets. What Black neighborhoods do excel in, though, is fast food. Predominantly Black neighborhoods have 60 percent more fast food restaurants per square mile compared to predominantly white neighborhoods.

Now, of course, dietary behaviors alone do not fully explain the significant differences in diet-related disease patterns between racial groups. There are differences in employment and poverty and home ownership and healthcare access, all of which can affect outcomes. But while there are certainly many social and economic factors, such as racism and income inequality, that contribute to health disparities, there is good evidence that simply eating a more plant-based diet could help eliminate disparities in cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Here are the diabetes data. Even after controlling for education, income, physical activity, and even BMI, non-Blacks eating strictly plant-based diets had 57 percent lower odds of diabetes, and among Black vegans, it was even more striking—70 percent lower odds. And that was after taking BMI into account. So, even at the same weight, Black vegans have 70 percent lower odds of diabetes than Black omnivores. And the racial disparity is only about half that: 36 percent. So, the increased risk of diabetes among Black participants was on the order of one-third, while the protection afforded by vegan diets in this subgroup was about 70 percent. Even just a vegetarian diet that includes still eating dairy and eggs may more than counteract the racial disparity in diabetes risk.

And they’re not the same weight. African Americans have higher obesity rates, cutting their lifespans by by six years, but Black vegetarian and vegans have less than half the risk of obesity compared to those who eat meat. And this is after adjusting for differences in physical activity. So even at the same exercise levels, those eating more plant-based had but a fraction of the obesity risk.

High blood pressure. In African Americans, hypertension is the most significant contributor to their increased cardiovascular disease burden and mortality but… Black vegetarians and vegans combined had 44 percent lower odds of hypertension, an important finding for Black individuals where hypertension is so prevalent, with no benefit found for those who cut out all other meat, but continued to eat fish. And the same thing found for total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol: cutting odds in half among Black vegetarians and vegans. As with non-Blacks, the researchers conclude, these results suggest that there are sizeable advantages to a vegetarian diet in Black individuals. What about vegetarians versus vegans? The title gives it all away. “Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors are [even] Lower in African-American Vegans.”

This is something we’ve known about when Caucasian vegans have been compared to vegetarians. However, it was not known whether African Americans vegans exhibit a more favorable cholesterol profile, until now. Significantly lower LDL cholesterol in vegans. Now of course, the vegans were also significantly slimmer, on average normal weight as opposed to the overweight vegetarians. But even after taking that into account, those eating more plant-based had significantly lower cholesterol.

So, there’s a tremendous “Potential for Plant-Based Diets to Promote Health Among Blacks Living in the United States.” In fact, they may have an even greater benefit. For example, African Americans have an excess burden of chronic kidney disease, not only because they have more high blood pressure and diabetes, but there are genetic factors. Eight percent to 12 percent of African Americans are carriers of the sickle cell trait, which places them at significantly higher risk of kidney disease, so while Blacks represent a relatively small fraction of the U.S. population, they account for more than a third of all patients on dialysis, due to chronic kidney disease. And that’s where plant-based diets can come in, shown to protect against both chronic kidney disease development as well as progression.

Three quarters of Blacks are lactose-intolerant too, so would again stand to benefit even more from eating plant-based. It is unacceptable that for decades, the American healthcare system has failed African Americans and other minority communities in terms of helping to prevent some of our leading killers, but that just makes it all the more important for them to take their reigns of their own health destiny.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the death rate for African Americans was as much as six times higher than white America. The higher Black pandemic deaths placed a harsh spotlight on their longstanding higher mortality and diminished longevity in general. Unfortunately, diminished African American life expectancy predates the COVID-19 pandemic by decades. The Black-white death gap for women is about three years, and for men, closer to five years.

The COVID-19 death disparities may have to do with limited access to healthy food in predominantly Black communities, the housing density, the need to work or else, the inability to practice social distancing, but also the underlying burden of ill health. Increased COVID-19 mortality and complications occur more often in individuals with pre-existing conditions like hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease––comorbidities that are more prevalent in African Americans. More high blood pressure, more diabetes, more strokes, more likely to die at early ages from all causes put together. The question is why. Why do Black Americans live sicker and die younger than their white counterparts?

Well, one big factor is socioeconomic status. In the United States, race is closely tied to class, with African Americans about twice as likely to be living in poverty. On average, education levels are lower as well; however, even among African Americans whose socioeconomic status is comparable to that of whites, despite the higher education and more socioeconomic resources, health outcomes are still poorer. Part of that has to do with lifestyle behaviors. For example, fewer than 5 percent of African American adults met physical activity guidelines. Smoking rates are actually comparable, though African Americans tend to be exposed to more second-hand smoke and have lower quit rates. This may be because they’re more likely to use menthol cigarettes, which enhance the addictive potential of nicotine. Why menthols? Because tobacco companies target the marketing of mentholated products to African Americans. Black lives…Black lung.

Similarly, if you look at food messages on African American television shows, not only does Black prime time contain a greater number of food commercials, African American audiences may be receiving nearly three times as many advertisements for low-nutrient junk such as candy and soda. That may be one reason why African Americans tend to consume fewer fresh fruits and vegetables, and are more likely to eat junkier foods.

Of course, where are you going to get those fresh fruits and vegetables? There are fewer supermarkets located in Black neighborhoods compared with white neighborhoods––as in four times fewer supermarkets. What Black neighborhoods do excel in, though, is fast food. Predominantly Black neighborhoods have 60 percent more fast food restaurants per square mile compared to predominantly white neighborhoods.

Now, of course, dietary behaviors alone do not fully explain the significant differences in diet-related disease patterns between racial groups. There are differences in employment and poverty and home ownership and healthcare access, all of which can affect outcomes. But while there are certainly many social and economic factors, such as racism and income inequality, that contribute to health disparities, there is good evidence that simply eating a more plant-based diet could help eliminate disparities in cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Here are the diabetes data. Even after controlling for education, income, physical activity, and even BMI, non-Blacks eating strictly plant-based diets had 57 percent lower odds of diabetes, and among Black vegans, it was even more striking—70 percent lower odds. And that was after taking BMI into account. So, even at the same weight, Black vegans have 70 percent lower odds of diabetes than Black omnivores. And the racial disparity is only about half that: 36 percent. So, the increased risk of diabetes among Black participants was on the order of one-third, while the protection afforded by vegan diets in this subgroup was about 70 percent. Even just a vegetarian diet that includes still eating dairy and eggs may more than counteract the racial disparity in diabetes risk.

And they’re not the same weight. African Americans have higher obesity rates, cutting their lifespans by by six years, but Black vegetarian and vegans have less than half the risk of obesity compared to those who eat meat. And this is after adjusting for differences in physical activity. So even at the same exercise levels, those eating more plant-based had but a fraction of the obesity risk.

High blood pressure. In African Americans, hypertension is the most significant contributor to their increased cardiovascular disease burden and mortality but… Black vegetarians and vegans combined had 44 percent lower odds of hypertension, an important finding for Black individuals where hypertension is so prevalent, with no benefit found for those who cut out all other meat, but continued to eat fish. And the same thing found for total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol: cutting odds in half among Black vegetarians and vegans. As with non-Blacks, the researchers conclude, these results suggest that there are sizeable advantages to a vegetarian diet in Black individuals. What about vegetarians versus vegans? The title gives it all away. “Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors are [even] Lower in African-American Vegans.”

This is something we’ve known about when Caucasian vegans have been compared to vegetarians. However, it was not known whether African Americans vegans exhibit a more favorable cholesterol profile, until now. Significantly lower LDL cholesterol in vegans. Now of course, the vegans were also significantly slimmer, on average normal weight as opposed to the overweight vegetarians. But even after taking that into account, those eating more plant-based had significantly lower cholesterol.

So, there’s a tremendous “Potential for Plant-Based Diets to Promote Health Among Blacks Living in the United States.” In fact, they may have an even greater benefit. For example, African Americans have an excess burden of chronic kidney disease, not only because they have more high blood pressure and diabetes, but there are genetic factors. Eight percent to 12 percent of African Americans are carriers of the sickle cell trait, which places them at significantly higher risk of kidney disease, so while Blacks represent a relatively small fraction of the U.S. population, they account for more than a third of all patients on dialysis, due to chronic kidney disease. And that’s where plant-based diets can come in, shown to protect against both chronic kidney disease development as well as progression.

Three quarters of Blacks are lactose-intolerant too, so would again stand to benefit even more from eating plant-based. It is unacceptable that for decades, the American healthcare system has failed African Americans and other minority communities in terms of helping to prevent some of our leading killers, but that just makes it all the more important for them to take their reigns of their own health destiny.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Doctor's Note

Food and tobacco aren’t the only products with marketing targeted at Black Americans. I previously covered the dangers of Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder in Talcum Powder and Fibroids

For more information on this topic, check out this webinar hosted by the Plantrician Project: https://plantricianproject.org/global-health-disparities-a-dialogue.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here. Read our important information about translations here.

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