Eating more vegetables and less meat contributes to a healthy heart, new research suggests.
Not only is eating fewer animal products good for the planet, but it is also good for your health, as more and more studies suggest.
Particularly, a growing body of evidence is showing that a plant based diet could benefit cardiovascular health.
By way of example, one such recent study found that eating more plant based foods slashes the risk of heart failure by 40%, while another one found that a vegetarian diet cuts the risk of heart disease death by the same percentage.
Now, a new study appearing in the Journal of the American Heart Association strengthens these findings, as researchers find that eating more vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains and fewer animal products correlate with a much lower risk of dying of a heart attack or other serious cardiovascular event.
Casey M. Rebholz, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD, is the lead author of the new study.
Studying dietary intake and heart health
Rebholz and colleagues examined data from 12,168 middle aged people who had enrolled in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. The ARIC project clinically followed the participants between 1987 and 2016.
The researchers in the latest study categorized the participants’ diet using four diet indexes: “In the overall plant based diet index and provegetarian diet index,” they explain, “higher intakes of all or selected plant foods received higher scores.”
“[I]n the healthy plant based diet index, higher intakes of only the healthy plant foods received higher scores,” while “in the less healthy plant based diet index, higher intakes of only the less healthy plant foods received higher scores.”
The researchers applied three Cox proportional hazards models to calculate hazard ratios and assess “the association between plant based diet scores and incident cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease mortality, and all cause mortality.”
25% lower risk of death from any cause
The findings reveal that the participants who had the highest intake of plant based foods and scored the highest on the indexes were 16% less likely to have a cardiovascular condition — such as a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure — when the researchers compared them with adults who consumed the smallest amount of plant based foods.
High plant based food consumers were also 25% less likely to die from any cause and had a 32% lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular condition.
“While you don’t have to give up foods derived from animals completely, our study does suggest that eating a larger proportion of plant based foods and a smaller proportion of animal based foods may help reduce your risk of having a heart attack, stroke or other type of cardiovascular disease,” says the lead researcher.
“There might be some variability in terms of individual foods, but to reduce cardiovascular disease risk, people should eat more vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fruits, legumes, and fewer animal based foods.”
Casey M. Rebholz
Dr. Mariell Jessup, the chief science and medical officer of the American Heart Association (AHA), who was not involved in the study, also comments on the results.
She says, “The [AHA] recommend[s] eating a mostly plant based diet, provided the foods you choose are rich in nutrition and low in added sugars, sodium (salt), cholesterol and artery clogging saturated and trans fats.”
“For example, French fries or cauliflower pizza with cheese are plant based but are low in nutritional value and are loaded with sodium (salt). Unprocessed foods, like fresh fruit, vegetables, and grains, are good choices,” Dr. Jessup explains.
Study strengths and limitations
The study’s lead researcher also points out that this is one of the first studies to examine this association in the general population. By contrast, most previous research has found cardiovascular benefits for plant based diets in smaller populations, such as vegetarians.
Also, the “findings are pretty consistent with previous findings about other dietary patterns, including the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH diet, which emphasize the same food items,” Rebholz adds.
However, the study has some limitations, such as the self-reported nature of the dietary intake.
Also, the ARIC study measured the dietary intake of plant based and animal based foods decades ago, say the scientists, so the measurements may not reflect the modern food industry.
Finally, the study cannot prove causation.