Numerous studies have shown how plant-based diets improve health, however, a recent study has shown just how much you can improve your heart health and decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease by eating a plant-based diet. By switching to a fully plant-based diet or by just incorporating plant-based meals into your typical diet, you can not only improve your health but also help improve the planet.
The Journal of the American Heart Association recently released a study that adds to the mounting evidence on the correlation between plant-based diets and improved health. Researchers found that eating more vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains and fewer animal products leads to a much lower risk of death by heart disease or other serious cardiovascular events. The lead author of the study is Casey M. Rebholz, Ph.D., who is also an assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Dr. Rebholz's study included 12,168 middle-aged people who had enrolled in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. The participants had been involved in the ARIC project between 1987 and 2016. Dr. Rebholz and her colleagues categorized the participants' diet using four diet indexes: "In the overall plant-based diet index and provegetarian diet index," they explain, "higher intakes of all or selected plant foods received higher scores."
"In the healthy plant-based diet index, higher intakes of only the healthy plant foods received higher scores," while "in the less healthy plant-based diet index, higher intakes of only the less healthy plant foods received higher scores." The researchers used three Cox proportional hazards models to calculate hazard ratios and assess "the association between plant-based diet scores and incident cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease mortality, and all cause mortality."
Dr. Rebholz's findings showed that participants who had the biggest intake of plant-based foods and also scored the highest on the indexes were 16% less likely to experience a cardiovascular condition like heart attack, stroke, or heart failure. These results are compared to adults who consumed the smallest amount of plant-based foods.
"While you don't have to give up foods derived from animals completely, our study does suggest that eating a larger proportion of plant-based foods and a smaller proportion of animal-based foods may help reduce your risk of having a heart attack, stroke or other type of cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Rebholz. "There might be some variability in terms of individual foods, but to reduce cardiovascular disease risk, people should eat more vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fruits, legumes, and fewer animal-based foods."
Chief Science and Medical Officer of the American Heart Association (AHA) commented on this study saying that "The AHA recommends eating a mostly plant-based diet, provided the foods you choose are rich in nutrition and low in added sugars, sodium, cholesterol and artery-clogging saturated and trans fats. For example, French fries or cauliflower pizza with cheese are plant-based but are low in nutritional value and are loaded with sodium. Unprocessed foods, like fresh fruit, vegetables, and grains, are good choices."
Dr. Rebholz noted that this is the first study to examine this association in the general population. Another study however found cardiovascular benefits for plant-based diets in smaller populations, like vegetarians. Dr. Rebholz also added that these "findings are pretty consistent with previous findings about other dietary patterns, including the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH diet, which emphasize the same food items."
Dr. Rebholz also wanted to point out the limitations of their study like the self-reported nature of the dietary intake. Also, the ARIC study measured the dietary intake of plant-based and animal-based foods from many years ago so the measurements may not reflect the modern food industry. The study also can't prove causation.