Guest Authored by Perry Nix, MS, RD, LD
You may have heard that eating a healthful, plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk of developing heart conditions like heart failure, coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke. Not only that, but plant-based diets also reduce the risk of complications in those already diagnosed with these conditions.
Before digging into this further, let us clarify what a healthful, plant-based diet is. Many different types of diets fit under the umbrella term “plant-based”. Vegetarian and vegan diets are plant-based, as well as The Mediterranean and DASH diets. What do they all have in common? They are all rich in plant foods while limiting or eliminating meat.
A heart-healthy plant-based diet is focused on whole foods—foods as close to their natural state as possible. Think corn on the cob instead of tortilla chips, and apples instead of applesauce. A heart-healthy plant-based diet includes foods proven to improve heart health, like green leafy vegetables, colorful berries, nuts, beans, and legumes.
Keep in mind the quality of foods in a plant-based diet matters! While you could eat mostly chips, cookies, and soda and call it plant-based, diets high in these foods will not yield the same heart-healthy benefits. These foods are often high in saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, which are associated with heart disease.
So, why does eating a healthful, plant-based diet protect your heart from disease?
1. A Whole Food Plant Based Diet is Lower in Sodium
Whole food plant-based diets are naturally low in sodium, and research shows that people following a plant-based diet have lower blood pressure than those eating a typical Western diet. While small amounts of sodium are naturally found in all foods, the added sodium in processed foods is bad for your heart and dangerous for people with heart failure. Generally, it is recommended to keep your sodium intake under 2300 mg/day. With heart disease, a more restrictive sodium intake of 1500 mg/day may be beneficial.
Sodium is needed to help maintain an optimal balance of fluids in the body. However, those with heart disease often suffer from volume overload if too much sodium is consumed. Volume overload raises blood pressure causing the heart to work extra hard to pump an increased blood volume throughout the body. A diet lower in salt decreases fluid retention and blood volume, so the heart does not need to overwork.
Don’t forget that it’s up to you to ditch the saltshaker and reduce your sodium intake. Experiment with other salt-free seasonings to create flavorful and satisfying meals.
2. A Plant Based Diet is Low in Saturated Fat
Although fat often gets a bad reputation, it is essential for the body to protect organs, regulate body temperature, absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and provide energy. Still, not all types of fat are equal. When it comes to heart disease, saturated fat intake should be limited.
Saturated fat is in animal products, meat, and dairy. Too much saturated fat increases the risk of developing coronary artery disease, a condition marked by the buildup of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) in arteries making it difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently. Eventually, this buildup of cholesterol can lead to heart failure, heart attack, or stroke.
However, it is not necessary to eliminate fat from your diet! Plant foods are high in unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fat consumption boosts HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), which reduces LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. Olive oil, nuts, flaxseeds, and avocados are all great sources of unsaturated fat.
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fat exceptional for heart health. These fats prevent blood clotting, maintain good blood pressure, and lower cholesterol levels. Omega-3s are high in fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna. If you prefer not to eat fish on a plant-based diet, other sources include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and Brussels sprouts.
3. A Plant Based Diet is High in Fiber
Research shows that people following plant-based diets eat more fiber. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not digested or absorbed by the body. There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both benefit the body in different ways. While insoluble fiber is notorious for regulating bowel movements, soluble fiber takes the spotlight when it comes to protecting the heart.
Soluble fiber lowers total and LDL cholesterol in the blood, reducing the risk of cholesterol buildup in arteries near the heart. Soluble fiber also slows digestion, preventing blood sugar spikes and increasing the feeling of fullness. A prolonged feeling of fullness from soluble fiber intake can help you manage your weight. Control of blood sugar and body weight is paramount for heart health because these are risk factors for diabetes, and people with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease.
Focus on eating whole plant foods to get enough overall fiber (soluble and insoluble). Aim to consume 25-35 grams of fiber daily by eating whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Leave the skins on your fruits and vegetables because they are high in dietary fiber.
4. A Plant Based Diets is High in Antioxidants
Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables. They help protect cells from damage due to oxidative stress caused by free radicals. When our cells are damaged, we have more inflammation and a greater risk of developing heart disease and other chronic diseases.
We are all exposed to free radicals such as tobacco smoke, pollution, and exposure to the sun. Our bodies also naturally produce free radicals. Therefore, everyone could benefit from increasing their intake of fruits and vegetables daily to reduce cell damage and the risk of heart disease.
Vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and beta-carotene are all antioxidants. It is important to note that supplementing these nutrients do not have the same protective benefits, so be sure to consume a diet of antioxidant-rich foods. Incorporate citrus fruits, berries, dark green vegetables, red and yellow peppers, beans, nuts, and whole grains into your meals for increased antioxidant intake.
5. A Plant Based Diets is High in Heart-Healthy Micronutrients
Eating a healthful, plant-based diet could increase your consumption of many heart-healthy micronutrients like magnesium, potassium, folate, and vitamin B6. Like antioxidants, it is ideal to consume these nutrients through food. Supplementation can be appropriate to improve heart function in some individuals, but it is best to talk with your doctor first before starting any new supplements.
· Magnesium: Essential for a normal heartbeat. Shown to reduce blood pressure. Found in walnuts and spinach.
· Potassium: Helps control blood pressure by lessening the effects of sodium. Found in bananas, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and potatoes.
· Folate and Vitamin B6: Helps to maintain optimal levels of homocysteine, an amino acid. People with higher homocysteine levels are at a higher risk for heart disease.
Eating a healthful, plant-based diet may help protect the heart from disease, but this is only one piece of the puzzle. A plant-based diet while maintaining an active lifestyle and healthy weight are encouraged for the best outcomes.
Take Home Message
Consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils will likely result in reduced intakes of sodium and saturated fat and increased intakes of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. These dietary adjustments may decrease the risk of heart disease and improve heart health by reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, oxidative stress, and blood sugar. Adopting a plant-based diet by making small, simple dietary changes over time could result in a healthier and happier heart.
I hope you enjoyed this post on the benefits of plant based diets. Remember that each step you take toward including more plants in your diet is a big step toward improving your heart health. Be sure to check out my recipes on the blog and sign up for my email list so you stay up to date with the latest articles and nutrition information! –Lori