Eating more nutritious, plant-based foods is heart-healthy at any age. But as September marks Heart Awareness Month in Mzansi – a month dedicated to raising awareness about heart disease and its risk factors – we take a look at how studies are proving the life-saving properties of regularly putting plants on your plate.
In two separate studies analysing different measures of healthy plant food consumption, researchers found that both young adults and postmenopausal women had fewer heart attacks and were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease when they ate more healthy plant foods.
The studies were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations suggest healthy dietary patterns should be packed with a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils.
It also advises limited consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugary drinks.
How plant-based diets can save lives
In one study, titled A Plant-Centred Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease during Young to Middle Adulthood, researchers evaluated whether long-term consumption of a plant-based diet and a shift towards a plant-based diet starting in young adulthood were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in midlife.
Lead author, Ph.D student Yuni Choi explains that, “Earlier research was focused on single nutrients or single foods, yet there is little data about a plant-centred diet and the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Choi and colleagues examined diet and the occurrence of heart disease in 4 946 adults.
Unlike randomised controlled trials, participants were not instructed to eat certain things and were not told their scores on the diet measures, so the researchers could collect unbiased, long-term habitual diet data.
“A plant-centred diet is not necessarily vegetarian. A nutritionally rich, plant-centred diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health.”
“People can choose among plant foods that are as close to natural as possible, not highly processed. We think that individuals can include animal products in moderation from time to time, such as non-fried poultry, non-fried fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.”
Postmenopausal women can benefit from eating more plants
In another study, Relationship Between a Plant-Based Dietary Portfolio and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Findings from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) Prospective Cohort Study, researchers evaluated whether diets that included a dietary portfolio of plant-based foods were associated with fewer cardiovascular disease events in a large group of postmenopausal women.
The study analysed whether postmenopausal women who followed the Portfolio Diet experienced fewer heart disease events.
The Portfolio Diet includes nuts, plant protein from soy, beans or tofu, viscous soluble fibre from oats, barley, okra, eggplant, oranges, apples and berries, plant sterols from enriched foods and monounsaturated fats found in olive and canola oil and avocados, along with limited consumption of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol.
Senior author John Sievenpiper observes that, “These results present an important opportunity, as there is still room for people to incorporate more cholesterol-lowering plant foods into their diets.
“With even greater adherence to the Portfolio dietary pattern, one would expect an association with even less cardiovascular events, perhaps as much as cholesterol-lowering medications. Still, an 11% reduction is clinically meaningful and would meet anyone’s minimum threshold for a benefit. The results indicate the Portfolio Diet yields heart-health benefits.”
The researchers believe the results highlight possible opportunities to lower heart disease by encouraging people to consume more foods in the Portfolio Diet.
“We also found a dose response in our study, meaning that you can start small, adding one component of the Portfolio Diet at a time, and gain more heart-health benefits as you add more components,” said Andrea J. Glenn, registered dietician and lead author of the study.
Researchers also found:
- Compared to women who followed the Portfolio Diet less frequently, those with the closest alignment were 11% less likely to develop any type of cardiovascular disease, 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease and 17% less likely to develop heart failure.
- There was no association between following the Portfolio Diet more closely and the occurrence of stroke or atrial fibrillation.