The foods we eat have a direct impact on heart health. A plant-based diet can be good for your heart. When you eat mostly or only fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, and meat substitutes like soy, you can reduce your risk of getting heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
What’s the Difference Between Being Vegan and Vegetarian?
Vegans and vegetarians choose not to eat meat. Veganism is stricter and also prohibits dairy, eggs, honey, and any other items that are derived from animal products. However, there are some people who follow strict vegetarian and vegan diets and others who follow a plant-based diet where they still eat meat. Below, we’ll outline the different variations of vegetarian diets.
- Plant-based. A plant-based diet or plant-rich diet consists mostly or entirely of foods derived from plants and with few or no animal-sourced foods. A plant-based diet isn’t necessarily vegetarian.
- Vegetarian. According to the Vegetarian Society, vegetarians are people who don’t eat the products or byproducts of animal slaughter. Vegetarians typically consume a range of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, and pulses, as well as “meat substitutes” that are derived from these food types.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians. People who follow this diet avoid all types of meat and fish but do consume dairy products and eggs.
- Pescatarian. Those who follow this diet avoid all meats except fish and other types of seafood. This diet doesn’t meet the traditional definition of vegetarianism, and many people refer to this diet as being semi-vegetarian or flexitarian.
- Vegan. Veganism is a stricter form of vegetarianism. Vegans avoid consuming or using any animal products or byproducts. The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a way of living, which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.”
Are Vegan and Vegetarian Diets Healthy for Your Heart?
Research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables is very beneficial for your heart health. Below, we’ll outline the heart health benefits of vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based diets.
A vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and various types of cancer. A non-meat diet may also reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, which includes obesity and type 2 diabetes. Studies show that switching to a vegetarian diet may help you lose weight, at least in the short term.
Following a vegan diet can help you lose weight, and many observational studies show that vegans tend to be thinner and have lower body mass indexes (BMI) than non-vegans. Eating fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fiber is linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Vegan diets are also linked to better cholesterol levels and can also reduce your blood pressure, which reduces your risk for heart disease.
Eating more plant-based foods can help you lose weight, lower cholesterol, and reduce your risk for heart disease. Unlike diets that include red meats that are loaded with cholesterol and saturated fats that can lead to heart disease, plant-based diets promote cardiovascular health.
Can a Plant-Based Diet Reverse Heart Disease?
According to research from the American Heart Association, plant-based diets decreased the risk of heart failure by 42% among people with no history of heart disease. Ongoing research that began in the 1980s has shown that plant-based diets improve cardiovascular conditions like angina (chest pain) and atherosclerosis, which happens when arteries become blocked due to a buildup of a cholesterol-containing substance called plaque. One study showed that people who consumed a plant-based diet even reversed coronary artery disease.
Research also shows that a low-fat, plant-based diet, combined with regular exercise and a healthy overall lifestyle can prevent, delay, and even reverse heart disease and other cardiovascular events. In one study, patients with moderate to severe heart disease who adopted a plant-based diet and healthy lifestyle changes noticed results within weeks. In these patients, 90% of chest pain was diminished and after one month, blood flow to the heart improved. After a year, severely blocked arteries had reopened.
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What Can Make a Plant-Based Diet Unhealthy?
Not all plant-based diets are necessarily healthy. A healthy plant-based diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans. There are plant-based foods that you should avoid, which we’ll outline below, and some things you can do to make transitioning to a plant-based diet easier and healthier:
- Avoid processed foods. Cutting back on processed foods like cheese, frozen vegan dinners, faux meats, chips, and cookies is helpful both for your weight and heart health.
- Get proteins from a variety of foods. Plant-based foods can provide the protein you need for a healthy diet, so mix it up. Nuts and seeds are healthy sources of protein that can help keep your weight down. Legumes, which include beans, peas, and lentils are all great sources of protein.
- Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. Sugary drinks can lead to weight gain, which isn’t recommended on a heart-healthy diet. It’s also good to limit your consumption of artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda and saccharin, which can cause your brain to crave sweetness over time.
- Limit meat to once in a while. Try to limit your consumption of red meats that are high in saturated fats and processed meats. Instead, focus on lean meats like chicken and fatty fish like salmon and sardines.
Baptist Health’s Diet Recommendations for a Healthy Heart
Overall, vegetarian diets that focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes are recommended for heart health. Avoiding refined sugars and grains, and processed foods will help keep your weight down and promote cardiovascular health.
If you have concerns about your nutrition or are considering adopting a vegetarian diet and have questions, your Baptist Health physician is happy to answer them and/or connect you with helpful resources. Make an appointment with a doctor in your area today.
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