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More evidence that a plant-based diet protects heart health

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Two new studies investigate the cardiovascular benefits of a plant-based diet. Anna Blazhuk/Getty Images
  • Two recent observational studies looked at the cardiovascular health of people who incorporated more plant-based foods into their diets.
  • One study followed participants for 32 years and found that people with more plant-based diets had lower rates of heart disease.
  • The other study focused on women’s health and learned that women in the postmenopausal stage of life with more plant-centered diets also had a reduced risk of heart issues.

Incorporating more fresh whole foods into one’s diet is something medical professionals often promote. Eating natural foods rather than highly processed foods can have a plethora of health benefits.

Two new observational studies looked at the benefits of plant-centered diets. Both studies followed participants for more than a decade to track health and food choice trends.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been setting forth dietary guidelines for more than 100 years. While the guidelines have changed over time, the USDA has long focused on eating foods that provide the nutrients needed to maintain good health.

The USDA presently recommends an individual’s diet consist of the following:

Based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet, the USDA suggests people eat 2 cups of fruit, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 6 ounces (oz) of grains, 5.5 oz of protein foods, and 3 cups of dairy.

It also suggests that people vary their protein sources and explore eating meatless meals every so often.

The first new study, called “Plant-centered diet and risk of incident cardiovascular disease during young to middle adulthood,” appears in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The researchers in this study tracked almost 5,000 young adults who were aged 18–30 years when the study began. The study lasted for 32 years.

None of the participants had heart problems when the study started. At checkups over the years, doctors evaluated the participants’ health, asked about the foods they ate, and assigned them a diet quality score.

By the end of the study, nearly 300 people developed cardiovascular disease. Moreover, after adjusting for various factor, including race, sex, and educational attainment, the researchers also found that people with the most plant-based diets and a higher diet quality score were 52% less likely to develop heart issues than those following the least plant-based diets.

“A nutritionally rich plant-centered diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health. A plant-centered diet is not necessarily vegetarian,” says Dr. Yuni Choi, one of the authors of the young adult study.

Dr. Choi is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

“People can choose among plant foods that are as close to natural as possible, not highly processed. We think that individuals can include animal products in moderation from time to time, such as non-fried poultry, non-fried fish, eggs, and low fat dairy,” Dr. Choi says.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, a nutritionist with a master’s degree in health management and the founder of KAK Consulting, spoke with Medical News Today about the study.

“The data presented in this study is consistent with previous studies on plant-based diets and longevity and metabolic health,” said Kirkpatrick.

“I’m not surprised at the findings,” she said, “and perhaps the takeaway here is it’s never too late or too early to start a plant-based diet.”

The second study also appears in the Journal of the American Heart Association and is called “Relationship between a plant-based dietary portfolio and risk of cardiovascular disease: Findings from the Women’s Health Initiative prospective cohort study.”

This study followed women in the postmenopausal stage of life who were aged 50–79 years at the outset of the study. The participants enrolled between 1993 and 1998, and the study lasted until 2017.

The researchers wanted to find out whether the participants who followed the Portfolio diet to lower their levels of low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol, experienced fewer cardiovascular issues in the long run.

People following the Portfolio diet eat more plant-based foods, such as legumes, garbanzo beans, and berries.

The participants completed questionnaires on their diets, and the researchers used this information to assess how closely they followed the Portfolio diet.

The researchers found that, compared with the participants who followed the Portfolio diet the least, the study participants with a diet most closely adhering to the plant-based Portfolio diet were:

  • 11% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease
  • 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease
  • 17% less likely to experience heart failure

“We also found a dose response in our study, meaning that you can start small, adding one component of the Portfolio diet at a time, and gain more heart health benefits as you add more components,” says lead author Andrea J. Glenn.

Glenn is a doctoral student at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.

It is also important to note that over 80% of the Women’s Health Initiative participants are white, over 60% have a college education or above, and more than 60% are married. This might make it difficult to generalize the results to other populations.

Dr. David J. A. Jenkins, one of the study authors, spoke with MNT about the study. Dr. Jenkins is a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto and is also a staff physician in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

Dr. Jenkins said they plan to conduct more studies and see what the results look like in men.

Additionally, Dr. Jenkins said they want to “see whether the results can be replicated in other cultures. We have also planned a large trial to look at cardiovascular outcomes.”

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