Plant-based foods are often assumed to be healthy even if they come in the form of healthier-for-you junk food like chips. But just because it's "made out of plants" doesn't guarantee it's healthy, especially for your heart. Research conducted over a decade in Greece shows plant-based diets are as heart-healthy as you make them, especially if you suffer from obesity.

The study, virtually presented to the European Society of Cardiology by Matina Kouvari of Harokopio University in Athens, analyzed the nutritional quality of "plant foods" over a 10-year period of 146 obese individuals' diets. Prior to the study, all the participants had normal blood pressure, and normal levels of cholesterol and blood sugar, and no history of heart disease. 

Each year, participants filled out a questionnaire about their daily eating habits including details about what foods they eat, including plant-based foods and portion sizes. The foods listed to choose from included the most common 156 foods and beverages in Greece.

Over the span of 10 years, nearly half of the participants who ate an unhealthy plant-based diet of refined grains (pasta and white bread), juices, sweetened beverages, potatoes, and sweets developed high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar. Those who consumed a minimally processed diet of mostly whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and tea or coffee, had normal blood pressure, healthy blood lipids, and low blood sugar.

The research also concluded that though women eat more plant-based foods in general than men do, it doesn't mean they are any healthier. "Prior research has shown that women tend to eat more plant-based foods and less animal-based products than men. But our study suggests that this does not guarantee healthier food choices and in turn better health status," says Kouvari.

A plant-based diet is only as healthy as the foods you choose to eat

Cutting out meat doesn't automatically make you healthier, the study found. The quality of the plant foods you are replacing it with plays a huge role in your health. If people replace meat with unhealthy processed foods or carbohydrates they end up as bad or worse off. “Eating less meat is beneficial for heart health, particularly when it is replaced with nutritious plant foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil," says Kouvari. (Note: This research has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.)

Studies show that a plant-rich diet has been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Eating more beets, avocados, tomatoes, berries, edamame and oranges have been linked to boosting heart health. Adding more veggies and grains on your plate is a great place to start and ensure you are eating a healthy balanced diet.

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