A new review published in the medical journal Cardiovascular Research provides more encouraging news for those embracing a plant-based lifestyle: Eating a diet rich in plant-based foods was linked to a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis as compared to diets that include animal products.

Atherosclerosis, which is sometimes called "hardening of the arteries" affects 14 million Americans, and Cardiovascular Artery Disease, or CAD, is a leading cause of heart attack, stroke and fatal heart conditions, or Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) according to MedScape figures. Approximately 80 million people, or 36.3 percent of the population, have cardiovascular disease, and often the beginnings or atherosclerosis start in early life and don't show up until later, when there are full-blown blockages and complications from elevated blood pressure in the body.


What Is Atherosclerosis?

“Atherosclerosis is when fats, cholesterol, and other substances start to build up within the walls of the blood vessels. Some build-up is natural as we get older, but it becomes a problem when the plaque buildup begins to obstruct blood flow, increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke,” shared Hannah Killion, MS, RDN, CDCES, founder of Diabetes from the Ground Up, LLC.

Put another way, the plaque buildup inside our arteries is called atherosclerosis. “Plaque is a blend of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other cellular waste products,” said Julie Harris, RDN, LDN, CPT, a recipe developer and blog writer for AngryBBQ.com. “As it hardens on the inside of your arteries, it limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood. The lack of oxygen can lead to heart attacks, stroke, and death.”

To determine their findings, researchers analyzed meta-analyses of cohort studies and randomized controlled trials (two types of scientific studies) that included heart disease outcomes. As Harris explained, the results painted quite the convincing picture for a plant-based diet and cardiovascular health: “The study reviewed past literature on the association between specific foods and the risk of developing CVD and atherosclerosis. This meta-analysis grouped food based on whether they were animal or plant-based. Based on the study’s research methods, the evidence suggests that plant-rich diets are associated with lower cardiovascular risks compared to diets that are predominantly animal-based foods.”

No single food is to blame, but a diet high in animal fat leads to the problem

“There is no indication that any food is poisonous in terms of cardiovascular risk. It’s a matter of quantity and frequency of consumption,” the lead researcher Gabriele Riccardi, MD, professor of endocrinology in the department of clinical medicine and surgery at the Federico II University of Naples in Italy, said in a statement, according to the medical news site Healio. “A mistake we made in the past was to consider one dietary component the enemy and the only thing we had to change. Instead, we need to look at diets as a whole and if we reduce the amount of one food, it is important to choose a healthy replacement.”

Healthier foods include plant-based foods that are high in fiber and nutrients, says Killion. "Replacing high-fat animal products (like red meats and butter) with high fiber plant products (like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) was found to significantly reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and development of cardiovascular disease.” Killion added that drinking three cups of coffee or tea daily and avoiding sugary beverages, and limiting yourself to moderate amounts of alcohol, were also associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

“I think the results of this study give people concrete swaps to make in their diet that are supported by research. Often, the thought of eating ‘heart healthy’ is kind of vague and misunderstood by the general population,” she said.

How Can You Reduce the Risk of Atherosclerosis?

“A plant-based diet should include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes (like lentils and beans), nuts and seeds, and heart-healthy oils (like olive oil or avocado oil). As a general rule of thumb, the closer a food is to its natural state, the better it is for your overall health,” said Killion.

Echoing Killion, Harris noted, “a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. Keep in mind, the goal is to increase these food choices and decrease the amount of animal-based food choices.” She ticks off a few healthy sources of plant-based fats — avocados, olive oil, seeds (pumpkin, flax, sesame), and nuts. Good-for-you plant-based protein choices include tofu, tempeh, soy, chickpeas, pinto beans, and quinoa, Harris said.

“An interesting fact is several vegetables (like cauliflower and Brussels sprouts) contain more protein per calorie than steak. It’s not an equal comparison, since you need to eat more vegetables to get the same amount of protein and calories as you would in meat. But it demonstrates that plant-based foods are rich in protein and can be suitable additions to your meals,” she added.

Going Plant-Based is Good For Your Heart

“Swapping animal proteins for plant-based proteins can significantly reduce the risk of a cardiovascular event,” said Killion, citing this study. Another convincing reason to go plant-based for your heart health? “This study found that a dietary pattern that consists of low fat, high fiber plant-based foods can actually reverse atherosclerosis that can lead to a stroke.

Harris also pointed to this longitudinal study that reviewed the diets of more than 109,000 men and women over the course of several years. “The average intake of fruits and vegetables was about 5 servings for both men and women. The participants with the highest intake of fruits and vegetables had lower risks of major cardiovascular disease events,” she added, noting that the limiting factor of this study is participants self-reported their dietary choices, which some people over-report, while others underreport their fruits and vegetable intake. Nevertheless, coupled with the newest study at hand, it’s certainly more than enough reason to convince us to pass the veggies.

How to Get Enough Iron When You’re Following a Plant-Based Diet

You may think iron is synonymous with meat, and while animal protein certainly has it, that doesn’t mean you can’t get enough iron if you eat a mainly plant-based diet. In fact, you can, if you know the right foods to choose and how to pair them. The daily recommendation from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for iron intake is 18 milligrams (mg), but not all iron sources are created equal. Here’s what plant-based eaters need to know about iron and which iron-rich foods are best to help reap the benefits.

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