Whether or not you eat meat, your heart is probably a vegan. Plant based diets are becoming more than just a trending topic as patients of all ages are turning to herbivory for various reasons; be it environmentally, morally, or otherwise. But I argue that the best reason for your plate going green is that beating in your chest right now. A growing body of evidence suggests that a plant based diet is one of the best changes you could make to improve your heart health.
Heart disease remains the leading killer in the United States and according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), it is responsible for one in every four American deaths. While high blood pressure damages the inner lining of the blood vessels, cholesterol floating in the blood will try to repair these micro-injuries like plaster on a drywall hole in a main hallway. The problem is that in the process, the cholesterol will create fatty plaques from years of plastering that can grow over time, narrowing the hallway and blocking blood flow. This becomes an even greater issue when the blocked blood vessels are supplying oxygen to the heart, much like the crowded corridor, leaving people with no way in or out and creating a fire hazard. In the instance of your body though, it is much worse than a stuffy hallway because when the heart muscles are starved for oxygen and nutrients, they could start to die – that’s called a heart attack. While advances in the surgical and pharmaceutical fields are successfully prolonging the lives of patients with cardiovascular disease, one of the best ways to prevent the sequelae of heart disease could be as simple as what you put on your plate.
A recent study compared 7 different clinical trials and found that subjects who kept meat off the plate were able to decrease their blood pressure to a greater degree than those eating meat. Another study out of Houston, Texas had patients eat a plant-based diet completely excluding animal products. After only 4 weeks, subjects were able to significantly decrease their blood pressure compared to when they started the study. This drop in blood pressure is ideal as high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is one of the leading risk factors for atherosclerosis and according to the CDC, it affects an estimated 1 in 3 U.S. adults. Years of hypertension could be detrimental to cardiovascular health and has been linked to heart attacks, strokes, and even kidney disease. While the exact reason plant based diets are associated with decreased blood pressure is not yet known, it may have to do with the reduction in sodium intake when animal products (like dairy) are removed from the diet.
A reduction of cholesterol consumed is also a necessary byproduct of a greener diet. While this fatty molecule that your liver produces helps your body perform several different tasks including making hormones and digesting foods, too much can cause concern.
A surplus of this waxy substance can build up in arteries and lead to a decrease in blood flow to important organs like your heart. Cholesterol-reducing medications remain some of the most commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals in the country as nearly one third of Americans either have elevated blood cholesterol levels or are currently taking cholesterol medications to decrease their levels according to the CDC. Cardiologists have always been looking for ways to reduce cholesterol for patients and new data may suggests that dietary changes could be more effective than previously thought. A review of the literature published in the American Journal of Cardiology suggested that patients following a plant based diet may experience lower blood cholesterol levels compared to their meat eating counterparts. The researchers evaluated several observational studies and randomized controlled trials, some of which revealed a decrease in cholesterol, especially Low-Density-Lipoprotein (the bad cholesterol) in diets with less animal products. These differences were greater in the groups that adhered to vegan diets and patients who ate vegetarian diets supplemented with fiber, soy, and nuts had the greatest degree of total cholesterol reduction, up to 35%.
Considering all of the above mentioned biochemical changes that happen in your blood vessels when you eat more fruits and veggies, the next logical through is that these benefits would lead to improved overall cardiovascular health and that is exactly what a recent study out of the Journal of the American Heart Association sought out to find. In a cohort study of over 12 thousand patients followed from 1986 to 2016, diets were documented and categorized based on the amount of animal products, fruits, vegetables, and grains consumed. Subjects were then divided into groups based on a Plant Dietary Index, a point system derived from the amount of plant and animal products eaten. Participants’ diets ranged from healthfull PDI to unhealthful PDI. The researchers found that a gradual decrease in animal product in conjunction with increased fruits and vegetables was inversely related to heart disease. This means that the patients who ate more plants and less animal products were less likely to have a heart attack while those who ate more meat and less veggies were more likely to have a heart attack.
Let’s face it, the majority of my patients are the typical, run-of-the-mill Americans who eat meat and/or animal products on a regular basis – and I’m not condemning this diet, for some, it’s all they’ve known. My goal is not to convert all-comers to a plant based diet: that’s some serious wishful thinking. I do believe that most patients live somewhere on the spectrum between carnivore and vegan. Perhaps we could all benefit from moving closer to the latter. So whether you and your family start meatless mondays or you’re making that final push to cut dairy out of your diet and go full vegan, a growing body of literature suggests that your heart is probably more of an herbivore than you think.
“Heart Disease Facts & Statistics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Nov. 2017, www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm.
Kahleova, Hana, et al. “Cardio-Metabolic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets.” Nutrients, vol. 9, no. 8, 2017, p. 848., doi:10.3390/nu9080848.
Kim, Hyunju, et al. “Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults.” Journal of the American Heart Association, vol. 8, no. 16, 2019, doi:10.1161/jaha.119.012865.
Ras, R.t., et al. “Increases in Plasma Plant Sterols Stabilize within Four Weeks of Plant Sterol Intake and Are Independent of Cholesterol Metabolism.” Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, vol. 26, no. 4, 2016, pp. 302–309., doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2015.11.007.
Sakakura, Kenichi, et al. “Pathophysiology of Atherosclerosis Plaque Progression.” Heart, Lung and Circulation, vol. 22, no. 6, 2013, pp. 399–411., doi:10.1016/j.hlc.2013.03.001.