Plant-based diets are at the root of heart-healthy eating
For a healthy heart, there’s no denying that plant foods are essential. Plants contain an arsenal of phytochemicals as well as dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, all of which benefit overall health. When it comes to eating for heart health, plants are at the center of the plate.
The Mediterranean diet, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) plan and vegetarian lifestyles are all rooted in a plant-based eating pattern that has been shown to reduce heart disease risk. Regardless of the name, a plant-based diet — one heavy in vegetables, fruit and whole grains — can help your heart.
“A plant-based diet, like all ‘diet’ labels, means different things to different people,” explains Stephen Devries, MD, executive director of the Gaples Institute for Integrative Cardiology in Deerfield. “What is clear is that health can be dramatically improved by shifting to eating more vegetables, fruit, nuts, beans and whole grains and cutting down on meat and dairy.”
Research shows that a plant-based eating pattern lowers the risk of not only heart disease and stroke, but also diabetes and other chronic diseases. “Just as powerful is that people generally feel better on a diet that emphasizes these kinds of whole foods,” Devries adds.
The Mediterranean diet
A popular plant-based approach is the Mediterranean diet, also called the MeDiet, which emphasizes reasonable use of olive oil; high consumption of fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts; regular intake of wine, especially red wine, with meals; moderate consumption of fish, seafood, fermented dairy products (low-fat yogurt and cheese), poultry and eggs; and low consumption of sweets and red and processed meats.
The large PREDIMED trial, conducted in Spain, assessed the long-term effects of the MeDiet on cardiovascular disease risk. It showed that a vegetable-based MeDiet rich in unsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts, fish and seafood as well as polyphenols from fruit, veggies, whole grains and red wine can be an ideal model for cardiovascular disease prevention.
“I tend to recommend a Mediterranean diet … however, vegetarian, vegan and pescatarian[a vegetarian diet that allows seafood] are very similar to the dietary patterns recommended by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology,” explains Manfred Pyka, MD, a general cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.
These heart-healthy eating plans are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, yet high in fiber, potassium and unsaturated fats, he says.
What is clear is that health can be dramatically improved by shifting to eating more vegetables, fruit, nuts, beans and whole grains and cutting down on meat and dairy.
The DASH diet is the gold standard for lowering blood pressure. It has been shown to significantly lower systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) blood pressure, especially in those with hypertension and pre-hypertension, after only two weeks on the diet.
Although the DASH diet stems from research done 20 years ago, the approach holds true in clinical trials today. You can lower blood pressure with an eating pattern that includes foods rich in lean protein, fiber, potassium, magnesium and calcium and lower in saturated fat and sugar, such as fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains and dairy products. DASH is not a low-sodium diet, but its effect can be enhanced by eating less sodium, researchers say.
There are a wide range of vegetarian diets, from no animal foods at all (vegan) to meat-free, plant-based diets that allow dairy and eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarian), fish (pescatarian) or occasional red meat, poultry and seafood (flexitarian).
“I like to focus on the principles that are well supported by evidence: Load up your diet with vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts and whole grains,” Devries says. “Among animal foods, fish is the best choice, but certainly not essential. Have mostly water to drink and — barring any special circumstances — a glass of wine now and then can help.”
Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, hypertension and obesity, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Low intake of saturated fat and high intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts and seeds, which are high in fiber and phytochemicals, produces lower cholesterol levels and better blood sugar control, it says. Vegans should make sure to get vitamin B12 from fortified foods and/or supplements.
Another plus: Vegetarian diets help environmental sustainability, as they use fewer natural resources and are associated with less environmental damage.
It can be hard to make sense of so many different diets, but many have similar philosophies at their core. The bottom line is that plant-based eating is part of a healthy lifestyle. A whole- food, plant-based diet — along with regular exercise, stress management, social support, adequate sleep and no tobacco or drugs — can help keep your heart healthy and happy.