Choosing a Vegetarian Diet May Benefit Those at High Risk for Heart Disease

Key Takeaways:

  • A recent meta-analysis of 20 studies suggests that adopting a vegetarian diet could improve heart health by aiding in improved cholesterol levels, better blood sugar control, and weight management.
  • Renowned nutrition experts, Connie Diekman and Lona Sandon, agree that a diet high in plant-based foods and low in high-fat meats supports overall heart health.
  • The research involved nearly 1,900 adults who were either dealing with heart disease or at high risk of heart disease. Diet plans of these adults varied, but a common finding was a modest, yet significant, positive impact on maintaining cholesterol, blood sugar, and body weight in those who adopted a vegetarian diet.
  • Researchers assert that while medication can aid heart health, combining it with a diet rich in plant foods provides additional, significant support. Such a diet introduces nearly no risks and multiple benefits, including promoting gut and heart health.
  • Diekman highlights that plant foods, with their unique nutrients and rich content of phytonutrients, help maintain low levels of ‘bad cholesterol’, thus reducing the risk of heart disease. She recommends creating an enjoyable and sustainable eating plan that is centered around plant foods.

Concerns about heart health have prompted greater consideration of vegetarian diets, according to a recent study from Australia, which indicated that a plant-based diet could be beneficial for heart health.

A reexamination of 20 previous studies suggested that those who had adopted a vegetarian diet for an average period of six months reported an overall improvement in cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and body weight.

Whole Foods for Heart Health

Connie Diekman, an experienced food and nutrition consultant and ex-president of the U.S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, stated that the analysis of the study reinforces what we already know—that an increased consumption of plant-based foods in lieu of high-fat meats supports overall health.

Expert Lona Sandon, director of clinical nutrition at the School of Health Professions, UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, concurred as she emphasized the clear and unanimous support of research indicating that a diet richer in plant foods—while also reducing the intake of meat and heavily processed meats—promotes heart health.

Vegetarian Diets: Not Just for the Health-Conscious

While vegetarian diets have been commonly proposed as a generally healthier lifestyle, it was unclear whether those with existing heart conditions or those vulnerable to heart complications could also benefit from such diets, according to study leader Tian Wang and his team. Wang is both a registered dietitian and doctoral student at the University of Sydney.

Wang’s meta-analysis aimed to provide clarity on this issue by examining the records of nearly 1,900 adults ranging from 28 to 64 years old. The studies that were part of this review carried out trials ranging between two months and two years and were published across the United States, Europe, Asia, and New Zealand between 1990 and 2021. The participants of these studies were either currently dealing with heart disease or at high risk of developing heart disease in the future.

Different Diets, Same Impact

The diet plans varied across these studies. Some comprised low-fat, purely vegan meals, while others qualified as vegetarian and included non-fat dairy and egg whites. However, the overall inference drawn by the researchers was the same. Compared with a diet including meat, a vegetarian diet appeared to have a “modest but significant effect” in maintaining cholesterol, blood sugar, and body weight. Though it should be noted that no significant impact was found on blood pressure control.

The results of this innovative research can be found in the July 25 issue of JAMA Network Open.

The Evidence for Plant-Based Diets Continue to Mount

The research team behind these findings is seeking more studies to explore how a vegetarian diet might improve heart health, especially when combined with prescribed medicines.

Sandon argues, however, that this verdict is already clear. High-risk patients need to utilize all possible methods because sometimes medicine alone might not suffice. “Eating a diet higher in plant foods is part of the puzzle,” she asserts.

Sandon characterizes plant foods as a method for maintaining clean, flexible arteries. “Compounds such as flavon-3-ols, found in foodstuffs like berries, tea, and cocoa—help keep arterial cells healthy and functioning normally,” she adds. Therefore, adding more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy oils into your daily diet introduces nearly no risks and plenty of benefits. Particularly for gut health and heart health, the fiber and phytonutrients that accompany a plant-focused diet can be significantly beneficial.

Diekman agreed. Diekman highlighted that heart disease is a significant global concern, and studies continue to reveal evidence that plant foods, with their unique state of nutrients and a rich content of phytonutrients, are supportive of heart health. Further, Diekman stated that plant foods are low in fats which can increase LDL-C, the ‘bad cholesterol’. Limiting intake of animal-based foods and primarily focusing on plant foods can potentially reduce the risk of heart disease.

“As a registered dietitian,” she concludes, “my advice to my clients is to create an enjoyable and sustainable eating plan centered around plant foods, with smaller portions of lean or low-fat animals.”

Further Reading

Find more information about the positive link between a vegetarian diet and improved heart health at the American Heart Association.

Susan Levin

Hello, wellness enthusiasts! I'm Dr. Susan Levin, and while I may share a name with a certain American film producer, our domains couldn’t be more different! My silver screen is the world of medical science, and I have a deep-rooted passion for guiding individuals on their health journeys.Born and raised amidst the picturesque landscapes of Great Britain, I've also called the vibrant state of New Jersey my home for a significant chapter of my life. Both places have contributed to my understanding of health, community, and the diverse lifestyles that shape our well-being.With an M.D. in hand and a wealth of knowledge from years of practice, my goal on is to translate complex medical jargon into understandable, actionable advice for our readers. From the latest health trends to tried-and-true practices, I aim to be your reliable source for all things health and wellness.Join me as we unravel the intricacies of the human body and mind, ensuring that your health journey is informed, inspired, and most importantly, effective.
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