With a plant-based diet you can avoid plaque buildup in your blood vessels and lower your risk of heart disease.
A plant-based diet can decrease plaque in the blood vessels, and lower risk of diabetes and stroke, says Dr. Williams. “If we have a choice, it seems like a vegetarian diet is better.”
The good news for avid meat eaters is that you don’t have to completely quit meat to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet. Simply reducing the amount of animal products in your diet lowers the risk of high blood pressure. Then, as you start replacing meat with fish, or switching to vegetarian, or go completely vegan, your heart-disease risk gradually goes down, Williams says.
“People say eat everything in moderation, and I used to tell people that moderation results in moderate disease instead of severe disease,” he says.
Following are eight of the many ways a plant-based diet can protect your heart from disease.
1. Plants Have Less Saturated FatSaturated fats are ones that are “saturated” with hydrogen. These fats or oils are typically solid at room temperature. They are found in meat and animal products like beef, lamb, butter, cheese, and high-fat dairy products, but also in coconut oil.
According to medical experts at the American Heart Association (AHA), eating saturated fats increases the amount of cholesterol in your blood. And this, in turn, raises your risk of heart disease and stroke. The organization recommends having only about 13 grams (gm) of saturated fat per day for people on a 2,000-calorie diet.
AHA dietary guidelines suggest eating four to five servings each of vegetables and fruits, six to eight whole-grain servings, two to three dairy-based foods, and less than 6 ounces of meat, poultry, or seafood per day. This diet clearly relies heavily on plant-based foods.
2. You Can Eliminate Cholesterol From Your DietOur bodies need a small amount of cholesterol to function, but most of us make enough on our own without adding it through our diets. Excess cholesterol comes from the food we eat — and it’s good to know that cholesterol is found only in animal products, not plants.
Why does excessive cholesterol matter? According to the American Heart Association, having high cholesterol in your blood is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and heart attack.
The bad form of cholesterol (called LDL) is one of the products that make up plaque, along with fat, waste products, and calcium. When plaque builds up in the arteries (which carry blood away from the heart) it can cause them to block and harden, leading to heart attacks or strokes.
The link between cholesterol and heart disease has been debated, however. The most recent recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee took out cholesterol limits of 300 mg per day because “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum [blood] cholesterol.” The report noted that cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern.”
Most nutrition experts do agree, though, that replacing fatty meats with plant-based foods is a healthy change.
According to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), low blood cholesterol levels can be achieved by replacing saturated fats and oils with monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fats (found in things like avocadoes, olive oil and nuts). Less then 10 percent of daily calories should come from saturated fats.
3. Plants Increase Fiber in Your DietA well-rounded, plant-based diet should also increase the amount of soluble fiber you get. And increasing fiber is one way to reduce the bad cholesterol circulating in your body, says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, clinical associate professor at Boston University Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Fiber interacts with the bad cholesterol in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract and helps remove it more quickly from your body, she says. This decreases the overall amount of bad cholesterol absorbed in your body.
Soluble fiber is found in foods like beans, lentils, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Salge Blake recommends making healthy food swaps, like reducing or cutting meat out of chili and adding beans to the pot.
4. Eating Less Meat Lowers Diabetes and Obesity RisksEating meat, or consuming higher amounts of saturated fat, is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Having diabetes, in turn, is thought to make you twice as likely to experience heart disease and stroke. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD), having diabetes increases your risk of having heart disease or strokes at an earlier age.
“If you are a meat person and start changing your diet — even if it is just following the My Plate icon where a smaller amount of your food comes from protein sources — you are going to cut calories and lose weight,” Salge Blake says.
Part of the weight loss can be due to the decrease in saturated fat you get in a plant-based diet. In addition, Salge Blake says, you can expect weight loss because fruits and vegetables have fewer calories and more water. This helps you fill up before you fill out.
5. Fruits and Veggies Lower Blood PressureOne well-known and often recommended diet for people with hypertension is the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. While this diet is focused on reducing the amount of sodium in the diet, it also aims to lower meat intake.
On the DASH diet you increase your intake of fruits and vegetables and eat only 5 ounces of protein-based foods daily. You should have no more than 26 ounces of meat, poultry, and eggs each week.
A large hypertension study supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found the DASH diet lowered blood pressure among participants when compared to a typical American diet.
6. Plants Enrich Your Diet With Omega-3sAccording to the University of Maryland Medical Center, eating omega-3 fatty acids can reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes and lower your cholesterol and high blood pressure. Omega-3 fatty acids are not made in the body, so the only way to get them is through diet.
Some kinds of omega-3s — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found in cold-water fish like salmon, sardines and tuna. DHA and EPA are converted into usable omega-3 more readily than the plant-based alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). For this reason, many dietary guidelines that recommend lowering the amount of meat and poultry are increasingly including the regular consumption of fish.
ALA is found in plant-based foods including: pumpkin seeds, canola oil, soybeans, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
RELATED: 8 Smart Food Swaps for a Healthy Heart
7. A Vegan Diet Adds Beneficial NutrientsA host of nutrients in a vegan diet are heart-protective, Salge Blake says. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, plant sterols, phytochemicals, and potassium, which are all thought to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Williams says potassium, in particular, is a very effective fighter of hypertension, or high blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, potassium helps to reduce the effects of sodium (known to raise blood pressure) in the body.
“Increasing potassium really makes a difference in lowering blood pressure. And it seems to work even better when it’s included in a plant-based diet,” Williams said.
Potassium is found in a wide range of plant-based foods including sweet potatoes, spinach, mushrooms, soybeans, almonds, bananas, apricots, tomatoes, and cantaloupe.
8. You Can Avoid Unhealthy Components of MeatWilliams says that in research, it is difficult to tease out whether it is the benefits of the plants or the absence of meat that makes a vegetarian or vegan diet better than eating meat.
“It may be that a vegetarian diet is really healthy… and it might be that the non-vegetarian is so unhealthy,” he says.
When you replace animal products with plant-based ones, you are not only adding beneficial nutrients, but are taking other harmful ones out. For example, along with cholesterol and saturated fats, meat also has heme iron, which is not found in plant products. Heme iron comes from the blood in meat and can create reactive oxygen which contributes to heart attacks, Williams says.
Another compound, carnitine, which is found almost solely in red meat, eggs, and high-fat dairy, can be toxic to the body. Carnitine is converted to trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO) in the gut. This metabolite, Williams says, is toxic to the system, acting as a transporter of cholesterol to the arteries.
In the end, Williams says he would like to see more studies that look at hard outcomes of vegetarian and vegan diets. Until then, he is convinced by the “absolute improvements in myocardial blood flow” seen in observational studies — and in his own patients.