Can Plant-Based Dieting Help with Heart Health?

Can Plant-Based Dieting Help with Heart Health?

The concept of a plant-based diet has gained more traction in the last couple of years, but it isn’t an unorthodox idea. It has been going around for over 20 years and its significant and positive effects on heart health or the hotter topic of whether it can reverse heart disease are being discussed consistently until modern times.  A plant-based diet isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet plan though and there are still many misconceptions and gray areas that are needed to be addressed, clarified and understood before deciding to commit to this diet plan. It’s only an umbrella term and there are underlying aspects to it compared to how many people believe it is.  There are multiple variations of a plant-based diet: vegan – completely no animal products (even dairy, eggs and honey); flexitarian – eats some animal-based foods including chicken but never red meat; pescatarian – consumes seafood but avoids meat and poultry; lacto-ovo vegetarian – skips poultry, meat and seafood but eats dairy and eggs; lacto-vegetarian – skips any kind of meat and eggs but eats dairy products.   

Heart Health Benefits

“Changing your diet and lifestyle, as well as taking prescribed medications will help slow the progression of coronary heart disease.” – Victoria Taylor, registered dietitian for British Heart Foundation (BHF) According to WebMD, a plant-based diet can be good for the hearteven more so when you eat mostly a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, pulses, and nuts in your daily diet. Doing so already has a significant effect to reduce your chances of having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.  However, some experts state that you can still follow a plant-based diet without having to omit all animal-derived foods. While you should be putting more of the abovementioned food groups in your diet, the diet is easier to commit to in the long run when you are mindful of including small amounts of dairy, poultry, fish, and meat from time to time. The majority of the food on your plate should be veggies, grains, leafy greens or fruits, nuts, and seeds but many people commit to the diet on their own terms. This is what separates the vegan diet and the plant-based diet. Many dieters slowly move towards shifting their current diet to include more plant-based meals, such as 2 out of 3 meals of the day. Others may take entire days of the week and enjoy all of their meals sans meat. Meatless Mondays, anybody? What is more important to keep in mind is that a plant-based diet is not guaranteed healthy because not all plant-based foods are created the same. Such examples include manufactured plant-based snack foods like cupcakes, white bread, white rice, nuggets, and pizza that are all less healthy foods even though they are all plant-derived.   Many earlier studies on plant-based diets didn’t verify or classify between these various options. Experts suggest it’s better to learn and carefully read food labels and understand the foods you are eating than following a totally plant-based diet.    

Focus on healthier plant-based foods and quality of carbs

Concerning the lack of research distinguishing less healthy and healthier plant-based foods, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health examined dietary data taken every two to four years and sourced from over 200,000 nurses and health professionals.  A 20-year follow-up was conducted and during that period, the study concluded with only over 8,600 participants developing heart disease. Additionally, most of the participants even eat three to six servings of animal-derived foods each day and only a few participants follow a completely vegan diet.  The takeaway here is how focusing on healthier plant-based food choices is the more important factor when deciding to go plant-based and is the more significant contribution to fewer chances of developing or succumbing to heart problems and complications.  Another study in 2014 scrutinized 198 patients and if a strict plant-based diet can prevent or undo heart disease. Out of 177 participants, the study reported that the majority of them had symptom reduction while 22 percent as verified by test results had disease reversal.  The catch though, this study completely removed animal products, as well as processed foods, fruit juice, nuts, avocado, excess salt, refined carbohydrates, and added oils. However, there are still not enough data to confirm how much significant contribution can be credited to omitting animal products.  In addition to choosing the right foods that suit the diet, Harvard Health Publishing also advises focusing on carbohydrates’ quality such as eating whole grain bread than white bread, fresh fruits than sweets and cookies, sparkling water than soda/sugary beverages, oatmeal than cornflakes/cereals, and brown rice than white rice.  It is also more beneficial to include moderate portions of food choices from one of the most proven plant-based diets, the Mediterranean diet.  In celebration of American Heart Month this February, try heart-healthy recipes like our overnight chia oats and buddha bowl for a wholesome addition to your breakfast and lunch routine.