Did you know heart disease is the number one cause of mortality in America? Most people are more concerned about preventing cancer, but heart disease is an even greater threat to men AND women. Heart disease isn’t a “guy’s disease.” It’s true that women enjoy some protection against heart disease prior to menopause but their risk rises quickly during the second half of life. The hormonal changes associated with menopause are one factor that may be responsible.
Heart disease and heart attacks symptoms in women aren’t always the typical ones you read about in books and see on television. While men often have the “classic” symptoms of chest and arm pain, shortness of breath, sweating, and nausea, women in the throes of a heart attack sometimes experience vague signs and symptoms like lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, dizziness, or back pain. This makes heart disease and heart attacks in women harder to diagnose and early diagnosis is important for survival.
No matter what your age of sex, it’s important to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. As you might expect, diet plays a role in heart disease prevention. Research shows a diet rich in plant-based foods offer cardioprotective benefits. Considering the many benefits of plant foods, this isn’t surprising. Here are six ways adding more plant-based items to the dinner table helps protect against coronary artery disease.
Plant-Based Foods: Better Endothelial Function
Endothelial function is a measure of how well blood vessels “relax.” Blood vessels have to expand to allow oxygen-rich blood to flow more easily to the tissues that need it. When blood vessels are stiff, due to poor endothelial function, they don’t open or dilate as much as they should. Poor endothelial function has been linked with a greater risk for coronary artery disease and is also a contributing factor to hypertension.
A chemical called nitric oxide plays a key role in healthy endothelial function. The inner surface of your arteries, called the endothelium, makes nitric oxide but other factors also boost its production. The best example is exercise. When you do an aerobic workout, endothelial cells that line the inside of your arteries, make more of this blood vessel friendly chemical. That’s a good thing! Nitric oxide improves endothelial function by giving the walls of blood vessels the stimulus they need to open wider. It’s one of the many reasons exercise is heart healthy.
What does this have to do with a plant-based diet? Green, leafy vegetables also increase the production of nitric oxide. Leafy greens do this by supplying endothelial cells with the precursors, called nitrates, they need to make nitric oxide. Spinach, mustard greens, Swiss chard, kale, and the other luscious greens you add to a salad supplies your body with an abundance of nitrates. The green, leafy vegetable that contains the highest levels of nitrates is arugula, a slightly bitter green that adds a nutritional punch to garden salads. Eating your greens is even more important as you get older since your endothelial cells become less efficient at producing nitric oxide once you’re over the age of 40.
Plant-Based Foods: Good Source of Potassium
Fruits and vegetables contain an abundance of an essential mineral and electrolyte called potassium. As most cardiologists will tell you, potassium is vital for heart health and for blood pressure control. Although your doctor might tell you to eat a banana a day to get your potassium, bananas aren’t the best source. Plus, they’re high in natural sugar. Eat a salad instead. Dark, leafy greens have significantly more potassium per 100-gram serving than a banana.
Plant-Based Foods: Nutty but True
There’s lots to love about nuts. They’re crunchy, filling, and contain no sugar unless you buy the honey roasted ones – which you shouldn’t. Even better, research shows they lower the risk of heart disease and mortality from all causes. That’s hard to argue with!
In terms of heart disease mortality, the healthy fats in nuts lower the risk of blood clots and abnormal heart rhythms. Plus, the amino acid arginine, abundant in nuts, increases nitric oxide production – all favorable for the health of your heart. Next time you’re tempted to reach for a sugary snack, grab a handful of nuts instead.
Plant-Based Foods Are Rich in Fiber
A diet rich in fiber is linked with health benefits, including a reduced risk for heart disease. Unfortunately, most people only get half of the amount of fiber they need daily for good health. Current recommendations are that women get at least 25 grams of fiber daily while men should get 35 grams or more.
The easiest way to meet your fiber requirements is to eat more plant-based foods. Fruits and vegetables are rich in soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber offers the most heart health benefits while insoluble fiber is important for digestive health and preventing constipation.
The best way to maximize the amount of both forms of fiber is to eat fruits and vegetables with their outer skin or peel still on. The outer skin contains higher quantities of insoluble fiber. Whole grains are another plant-based food rich in fiber. In contrast, foods from animal origin including meat and dairy are almost devoid of fiber.
Plant-Based Foods Reduce Inflammation
You probably think inflammation is the redness and pain that happens when you cut your finger. It is – but there’s a more insidious type of inflammation that reaps its destruction slowly over time. By damaging the inner walls of blood vessels, researchers now believe chronic inflammation increases the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. Plus, it may contribute to other diseases like type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and cancer as well.
Fortunately, plant-based foods contain a dizzying array of phytochemicals that help reduce low-grade inflammation. Plants need these phytochemicals, which are also pigments, for protection against insects and for color while we need them for the health benefits they offer, including heart health benefits.
By Replacing Meat in the Diet
If you put more plant-based foods on your plate, there’s less room for meat. Some studies show a link between eating red meat and a greater risk of heart disease. Don’t assume it’s the saturated fat in red meat that’s the problem. One showed a compound in red meat called L-carnitine is bad for your heart. According to this study, gut bacteria convert L-carnitine to a chemical called TMAO, a compound that may damage the inner walls of arteries. At the very least, stay away from processed meats as they’re the most strongly linked with heart disease.
The Bottom Line
Even if you don’t adopt a vegetarian diet, you can still benefit from adding more plant-based foods to your diet. Now you know why.
Cell Metabolism. 2014. 20(5): 799-812.
American Heart Association. “Heart Attack Signs in Women”
Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar; 75(3): 677-696. Published online 2013 Feb 5. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04420.x.
Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Contaminants in the Food. Nitrate in Vegetables. The EFSA Journal (2008) 689, 1-79.
Harvard T.H. Chan. “Nuts for the Heart”
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