Your heart beats an average of 100,000 times a day, pumping 2,000 gallons of blood through the body to deliver vital nutrients, fuel, and oxygen to your cells. Keeping a healthy heart and lowering your risk of heart disease is the main goal of a healthy diet and exercise, and the Cleveland Clinic wants Americans to start thinking about their heart health long before any symptoms arise. Congestive heart failure may be far off, but it doesn't happen overnight. A lifetime of healthy eating and exercise is the way to have your healthiest heart, now and later.

In a country where heart disease is the leading cause of death, according to the CDC, killing more than 650,000 Americans every year, and where 48 percent of Americans have some form of heart disease, which includes strokes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks as well as congestive heart failure, doctors warn that many people have early markers for heart disease and not know it. Through lifestyle choices such as a plant-based diet it is possible to prevent and reverse heart disease, studies have found.

Some of those risk factors for heart disease include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood lipid counts, which can also lead to blocked arteries  It should come as no surprise, then, that we need to keep our hearts as healthy as possible – starting as early as possible – in order to avoid ever experiencing a life-threatening heart attack, stroke, or congestive heart failure.

Since one major contributor to heart disease is the lifelong habit of eating foods high in animal fat, which raises your cholesterol and can lead to plaque and harmful blockages of the arteries, taking the leap into plant-based eating (or eating a mostly plant-based diet) is a good start to ensuring that yours will be a healthy heart now, and for many decades to come.

In an important research study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the review of data showed that plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of not only heart disease but "all causes of mortality" in the general population of middle-aged adults. Here's what you need to know about switching to a plant-based diet to lower and reverse your risk of heart disease.

Potential causes for heart disease

1. Our diets are largely to blame for our risk of heart disease, according to the CDC.

Your risk of heart disease increases with age, but it’s not exclusive to older adults. The CDC states that heart disease is showing up more and more in younger people, ages 35 to 64, due to the high rates of obesity and high blood pressure in America. These precursors to heart disease are tied to the Standard American Diet, high in meat, dairy, added sugar, and processed foods that contain extra oil, sodium, and chemicals that make junk food addictive.

2. Another cause of heart disease is smoking.

Over 35 million U.S. adults still smoking, this habit can damage blood vessels and make them weaker, more prone to damage, especially when combined with a high-fat diet of animal fat, or saturated fat. (As for e-cigarettes and vape pens, these have not been proven to be any safer on your long-term heart health).

3. Your lifetime risk of heart disease also largely depends on genetic factors.

If anyone in your immediate family (parents, grandparents) has suffered from high cholesterol, arterial blockages, high blood pressure, stroke, or heart attack, those genes often get passed down to you. Your genes for heart disease can get "switched on" or remain off depending on your daily lifestyle choices, according to doctors and experts. According to the  CDC:

Lifestyle choices that lead to increased risk of heart disease include:

  • Diets high in saturated fat and sodium
  • Exercising fewer than 3 times a week
  • Drinking alcohol to excess on a regular basis
  • Smoking cigarettes or using chewing tobacco

4. The biggest contributor to heart disease remains unhealthy eating patterns.

America's obesity rate has risen to about 40 percent for the first time in our history and is now at an astonishing 42.4 percent. The national adult obesity rate has increased by 26 percent since 2008, and with it, there has been a parallel increase in the number of adults experiencing high cholesterol levels, chronic hypertension, and prediabetes, which affects over 108 million Americans, or one in every three adults.

What contributes to heart disease?

A diet high in animal fat, processed food, and added sugar is the number one culprit when it comes to your risk factors for heart disease. Certain macro and micronutrients – or lack of them – in the Standard American Diet are associated with an increased risk of heart disease in your lifetime.

Foods that impact heart disease include:

  • Saturated fats: You get saturated fat in most animal products, including red meat and dairy, as well as in tropical oils, such as coconut and palm oil. While there have been conflicting messages around the consumption of saturated fat and the effect it has on your heart, the American Heart Association states that “decades of sound science has proven[saturated fat] can raise your “bad” cholesterol and puts you at higher risk for heart disease.” The ADA recommends keeping your daily saturated fat intake to 5 percent of your daily calories. That means if you eat 2,000 calories a day, no more than 100 of those should come from animal fat, which essentially means going plant-based.
  • Low potassium and magnesium: Potassium and magnesium both play key roles in the function of our heart's ability to pump efficiently without any irregularities. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps your muscles contract and keeps your nerves working properly, including keeping your heartbeat regular, according to MedlinePlus. (This positive ion opens the cell membrane to exchange oxygen and energy and return waste to be carted off.) Magnesium plays a similar role, keeping nerve and muscle function healthy. You need these two electrolytes to keep your muscles, including your heart, working smoothly.
  • Low vitamin D: Vitamin D is known best for supporting bone health and the immune system, but it also helps your heart function optimally. According to a 2018 review, low levels of vitamin D were associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases and hypertension.
  • High sodium: Even though your body requires sodium to work in concert with potassium, in order to fully complete the task of exchanging energy and oxygen for waste, too much sodium can shortchange the equation, and is as damaging as not enough potassium, or even more dangerous. It's rare that people don't get enough sodium: 90 percent of Americans over the age of 2 are eating too much salt in their diets, and most of it is coming in the form of processed foods. High sodium intake is linked with high blood pressure and so-called hardening of the arteries, which can lead to heart disease and increased risk of stroke.
  • Added sugar: Sugars in your fruit or starchy vegetables are not harmful, since it's rare that you can eat enough of these natural foods to cause dietary disruption – and fruit and vegetables contain healthy fiber to help your body slow down the absorption of the natural fructose in an apple, for instance. So don't shy away from fruit and vegetables simply because they contain natural sugar. But it’s added sugars found in processed foods, sweets, juices, sugary sodas, and breakfast cereals that you want to avoid. It can be easy to consume too much of this added sugar, according to the American Heart Association, leading to extra weight gain which can negatively affect our heart. Your bloodstream can only hold the equivalent of one tablespoon of sugar at a time so when you binge sugar, your insulin level spikes, instructing the cells that can't use all that energy at once to store the excess as fat. Your body's ability to burn fat is hindered when you get into the habit of eating added sugar. Instead, focus on fruit.

How to prevent and reverse heart disease

It’s never too late – or too early – to start taking care of your heart! While you can’t change your genetics, you can focus on the behavioral factors you do have control over, including what you eat and your daily activity levels. A plant-based diet has been scientifically proven to be one of the best ways to reverse and prevent heart disease, as well as lower your lifetime heart disease risk..

One 2019 study published in Nutrients examined the effects of a whole-food plant-based diet on cardiovascular risk factors in 151 adults.

The plant-based diet consisted of:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Potatoes
  • Nuts and seeds

Following this whole food plant-based diet for short, medium, and long-term periods were all associated with beneficial cardiovascular health results. All participants saw improvements in blood lipid and blood pressure values. The female participants that were in the program long-term saw a bigger drop in LDL cholesterol levels (the “bad” kind) compared to the groups following the diet for a shorter period of time.

Fully changing your diet to avoid animal products, dairy, and processed foods all at once can be challenging, so it’s important to stay optimistic and be strategic, and know that even an incremental change is better than nothing. So don't be too hard on yourself if this is difficult.

Tips on how to follow a plant-based or vegan diet

A 2016 article published in The Permanente Journal recommends taking the following steps so you can successfully transition into a plant-based diet:

  • Start small: Drastic changes to your diet can be overwhelming, therefore it’s important to start with a few changes that can be made within reason.
  • Get support: Working with a registered dietitian can ensure that you’re meeting all of your nutrient needs and provide encouragement.
  • Learn how to read labels: Becoming familiar with nutrition labels will ensure that you’re choosing foods that are free of unneeded ingredients such as sweeteners, preservatives, or artificial flavors/colors

How fast can a vegan diet lower cholesterol?

You can see significant decreases in your LDL  or so-called “bad” cholesterol after just 3 to 6 weeks of eating a whole-food plant-based diet, according to Dr. Joel Kahn, Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and bestselling author of The Plant-Based Solution. Kahn is a plant-based cardiologist who recommends to his heart patients that they consider adopting this way of eating to be heart healthier. However, there are a number of factors that may impact individual results, Kahn adds.

According to the American Heart Association, there are two sources of cholesterol in our bodies:

  • Our liver
  • Animal food sources

Our liver makes all of the cholesterol we need to be healthy. Add in foods that are high in saturated fat and trans fat, and it can cause our liver to make more cholesterol than normal, which drives up LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, the American Heart Association warns.

Fortunately, switching to a vegan or plant-based diet can cause your cholesterol levels to start dropping within a week. The Game Changers documentary showed that for active or athletic people this drop in cholesterol happens quickly. Active firefighters who switched to eating plant-based saw a drop in cholesterol after only one week. If you continue, you can lower your cholesterol by as much as 35 percent in three weeks, but individual results will vary.

According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, eating the following foods can see a drop in LDL cholesterol by almost 30 percent in just four weeks:

  • Foods high in soluble fiber such as oats, beans, and barley
  • Soy protein
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Foods high in phytosterol such as wheat germ, almonds, Brussels sprouts

The best plant-based foods for heart health

While all whole (unprocessed) plant-based foods are nutritionally beneficial, there are certain ones that will really get your heart pumping – in a good way!

Pulses and legumes

Pulses and legumes consist of beans, peas, and lentils and are often used interchangeably in recipes such as soups, salads, and sides.

Soybeans are among the heart healthiest foods you can eat, according to a 2019 article in Advances in Nutrition, thanks to their high isoflavone content and the fact that they keep blood glucose and lipids in a healthy range.

Legumes are high in phytosterols which can help reduce LDL and total cholesterol while raising the “good” HDL cholesterol levels, a 2017 review found. Eat legumes every day.

Berries

While all fruit contains beneficial vitamins and minerals, berries, in particular, have a link with heart health. A 2019 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating 150 grams (about 1 cup) of blueberries per day reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease by up to 15%.

Other heart-healthy berries:

  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Cranberries
  • Goji berries

Chia and flax seeds

Eat lignans, which are "polyphenols that appear to lower risk of heart disease," explains Dr. Joel Kahn, founder of the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity. Dr. Kahn tells his patients to load up on lignans, found to be protective against heart disease in a recent study in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Dr. Kahn points out that flax seeds are also a rich source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Chia and flax seeds are an easy way to add texture to dishes and get a handful of beneficial vitamins and minerals. According to a 2014 article published in Circulation seeds contain:

  • Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Fiber
  • Protein
  • Phytosterols
  • Minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium

This array of beneficial compounds has been associated with lower blood cholesterol levels, and they also are linked to lower oxidative stress and chronic inflammation.

Green leafy vegetables

Eating your greens is important, especially if the goal is to prevent heart disease. A 2016 review study found that increased consumption of green leafy vegetables has the power to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by nearly 16 percent.

Enjoy your green leafy vegetables in the form of:

  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Collard greens
  • Mustard greens
  • Spinach

The Mediterranean diet for heart health

If you already eat a mostly Mediterranean diet, full of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and seeds but including meat, fish and dairy then one way to make it even heart healthier is to replace the animal products with plant-based proteins, according to a recent study. This "greener" Mediterranean diet has been shown to be an even healthier way to eat for optimal heart health.

Bottom Line: A Plant-Based Diet Is Proven to Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease

Heart disease is the number one killer in America, and yet many of us don't know we have it until it's too late. Rather than wait to be told you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, eat a heart-healthy diet of plant-based foods and avoid red meat, dairy, and processed foods with added sugar and sodium. Here's what the research says is the healthiest way to eat.