Sleep experts have long suggested weight loss through diet and exercise as a way to reduce the risk of obstructive sleep apnea. A new study, however, suggests that it’s not just how much you eat but also what you eat—and the greener it is, the better. 

Researchers from Australia’s Flinders University studied the dietary information of over 14,000 people using the 24-hour recall method that requires the respondents to give  detailed information about all foods and beverages they consumed in the past day. The participants were categorized and scored based on how many healthy, unhealthy, plant-based foods, and non-vegetarian items they included in their meals. Next, each participant’s sleep apnea risk was determined using the STOP-Bang questionnaire that asks about factors, such as snoring, daytime sleepiness, and pauses in breathing while sleeping. 

Overall, the findings published in the ERJ Open Research on February 26 showed that people who adhered to plant-based diets had a 17% lower chance of developing sleep apnea than those who consumed a high amount of animal-based foods. 

Further analysis revealed that participants who ate healthy plant foods were at lower risk compared to those who ate unhealthy plant-based foods. Healthy plant-based foods included whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, tea, and coffee. Unhealthy plant options included refined grains, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sugary drinks and desserts, and salty foods like chips. 

The study also noted that plant-based diets seemingly reduced sleep apnea risks differently for men and women. Females exhibited the highest risk of sleep apnea when they ate unhealthy foods and the lowest risk when they ate healthy plant-based meals, a trend that was less marked among men. The authors said that these sex-based differences warrant further studies that look at participant data over several years.

While it is not entirely clear how plant-based diets lower sleep apnea risks, the authors speculate that these foods lower obesity risks, which in turn reduces the risk of sleep apnea. Plant-based foods contain high levels of antioxidant nutrients like vitamins C, E, and B, which cut down inflammation in the body. They added that plant-based foods that are low in fat and high in fiber can create a healthy gut microbiome, which may lower obesity and sleep apnea risk.  

“Plant-based diets not only influence sleep apnea risk but also have the potential to modulate other pathophysiological mechanisms, affecting health conditions such as obesity and cardiovascular diseases,” the authors wrote. 

Nearly a billion people worldwide are estimated to be living with sleep apnea, which triples their risk of cardiometabolic diseases. The new findings could pave the way for including more greens in the dietary recommendations for those at high risk of sleep apnea, the researchers concluded.  

The study had a few limitations. For instance, the authors noted that the 24-hour recall data for dietary information may not reflect the participants’ long-term food consumption patterns and some participants may not have accurately remembered their past food intake. Despite that, it may not be a bad idea to load up the plates with greens.

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3 Sources

  1. Wang, S. H., Keenan, B. T., Wiemken, A., Zang, Y., Staley, B., Sarwer, D. B., Torigian, D. A., Williams, N., Pack, A. I., & Schwab, R. J. (2020). Effect of Weight Loss on Upper Airway Anatomy and the Apnea-Hypopnea Index. The Importance of Tongue Fat. American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine, 201(6), 718–727.
  2. Melaku, Y. A., Zhao, L., Adams, R., & Eckert, D. J. (2024). Plant-based and vegetarian diets are associated with reduced obstructive sleep apnoea risk. ERJ open research, 10(2), 00739-2023.
  3. Beam, A., Clinger, E., & Hao, L. (2021). Effect of Diet and Dietary Components on the Composition of the Gut Microbiota. Nutrients, 13(8), 2795.

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