One disease everyone needs to be concerned about is heart disease, the number one cause of mortality in Western countries. Most people think of heart disease as being a disease primarily of men. Far from it. Men have a greater incidence of heart disease, but women play “catch up” after menopause when their heart disease risk rises rapidly.
To make matters worse, heart disease symptoms are often more subtle in women than they are in men. Women frequently don’t have the classic symptoms of chest pain and shortness of breath we associated with heart disease. Instead, they may experience vague symptoms like “indigestion,” dizziness or fatigue. These symptoms are likely to be ignored or blamed on other causes.
The best “cure” for heart disease is prevention. As you might expect, diet plays a powerful role in heart disease prevention. Research shows a diet rich in plant-based foods offers heart-protective benefits. Considering the many benefits of plant foods, this isn’t surprising. Read on and discover 5 ways adding more plant-based items to the dinner table offers protection against coronary artery disease.
Better Endothelial Function
Endothelial function is the ability of blood vessels to “relax” and allow oxygen-rich blood to flow more easily. When blood vessels are too rigid or stiff, they don’t open or dilate as much they should. Poor endothelial function has been linked with a greater risk for coronary artery disease. How do plant-based foods help? Green, leafy vegetables increase the production of a chemical called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide improves endothelial function by giving the walls of blood vessels the “push” they need to open wider.
Fruits and vegetables of all types are also rich in potassium. Potassium is a mineral and electrolyte that helps with blood pressure control. As you know, high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease. Fortunately, potassium is abundant in many fruits and vegetables. You often hear that bananas are the best source of potassium but there are even better sources. For example, sweet potatoes, white beans, avocados, and spinach have more potassium per serving than bananas. Get your potassium by eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.
Nuts: Another Plant-Based Food with Heart Health Benefits
Nuts are a plant-based food consistently shown to lower the risk of heart disease AND overall mortality. People who munch on nuts frequently enjoy the heart health benefits this crunchy food offers. Some studies show as much as a 50% reduction in heart disease among people who eat nuts a few times a week. Aim for about an ounce of nuts a day.
What kind of nuts are best? Almonds are a rich source of vitamin E, a vitamin linked with cardiovascular health, while walnuts are a good source of short-chain omega-3s. All nuts are rich in heart-healthy fats and fiber. Enjoy a variety!
Plant 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 roughly half of the amount of fiber they need each day for good health. Based on current recommendations, women should be getting at least 25 grams of fiber daily while men need 35 grams or more. Plant-based foods like 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 for preventing constipation.
The best way to maximize the amount of both forms of fiber is to eat fruits and vegetables with their outer skin still on. The outer skin and peels contain more 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
There’s growing evidence that low-grade inflammation contributes to chronic diseases like heart disease. Plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, contain an abundance of phytochemicals that protect cells against oxidative stress and help keep inflammation in check.
Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Bok choy and more, lower inflammation in animal studies. What about humans? A 2014 study in humans found Chinese women who consumed greater quantities of cruciferous vegetables had reduced markers for inflammation in their blood. Plus, cruciferous vegetables contain anti-cancer chemicals as well. To get the benefits, help yourself to a second serving of broccoli or other cruciferous veggies of your choice.
By Improving Lipids
The American Heart Association recommends eating a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol to lower blood cholesterol. A study carried out at Stanford School of Medicine showed a plant-based diet was more effective for lowering cholesterol than the traditional low-fat, low-cholesterol diet. Some plant-based foods contain sterols, substances found in some fruit, vegetables, nuts, seed and whole grains, which reduce cholesterol absorption through the digestive tract. Plant sterols can modestly lower your blood cholesterol level. It’s one more reason to enjoy a variety of plant foods.
By Reducing Red Meat Consumption
When we eat more plant-based foods, especially plant-based sources of protein, we tend to eat less meat. Consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, has been linked with a greater risk for heart disease. At one time it was assumed the saturated fat in red meat was the culprit. A more recent study showed a compound in red meat called L-carnitine may be the problem. According to this study, gut bacteria convert L-carnitine to a chemical called TMAO, a compound that contributes to atherosclerosis.
One study showed eating a vegetarian diet reduces the risk of heart disease by as much as a third. You don’t have to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet to get the benefits of plant-based food. Simply replace a portion of the meat in your diet with plant-based sources of protein and replace starchy carbs with fruits and vegetables.
The Bottom Line?
Enjoy the benefits a plant-based diet offers and lower your risk for heart disease at the same time. Add more fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables to the table!
Cell Metabolism. 2014. 20(5): 799-812.
Medical News Today. “Vegetarian Diet Reduces Risk Of Heart Disease By A Third”
Stanford School of Medicine. “The Effect of a Plant-Based Diet on Plasma Lipids”
Food Nutr Res. 2008; 52: 10.3402/fnr.v52i0.1811.
J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 May;114(5):700-8.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2013.12.019. Epub 2014 Mar 13.
American Heart Association. “Potassium and High Blood Pressure”
Harvard School of Public Health. “Nuts for the Heart”
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