Eating more plant foods may lower heart disease risk

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Eating plant-rich diet promotes heart health and lower heart disease risk at any age, according to two recent studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.  Analyzing different measures of healthy plant food consumption, both studies reported that people from young adults to postmenopausal women had fewer heart attacks and were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease when they ate more healthy plant foods.

One study by researchers from University of Minnesota evaluated the effect of long-term consumption of a plant-centered diet and a shift toward a plant-centered diet starting in young adulthood on the risk of cardiovascular disease in midlife.

The UM researchers examined diet and the occurrence of heart disease in 4,946 adults enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study.  CARDIA study followed these participates for 32 years. Participants were free of cardiovascular disease at the start of the study and had eight follow-up exams that included lab tests, physical measurements, medical histories and assessment of lifestyle factors. 

The participants’ diet history was scored based on the food groups they consumed. The food groups were classified into beneficial foods (such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains); adverse foods (such as fried potatoes, high-fat red meat, salty snacks, pastries and soft drinks); and neutral foods (such as potatoes, refined grains, lean meats and shellfish).  Participants who received higher scores ate a variety of beneficial foods, while people who had lower scores ate more adverse foods. Overall, higher values correspond to a nutritionally rich, plant-centered diet.

Researchers found that:

  • During 32 years of follow-up, 289 of the participants developed cardiovascular disease.
  • People who scored in the top 20% on the diet quality score (meaning they ate the most plant foods and fewer animal products) were 52% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
  • In addition, when participants ages ranged from 25 to 50, those who improved their diet quality the most (eating more plant foods and fewer animal products) were 61% less likely to develop subsequent cardiovascular disease, in comparison to the participants whose diet quality declined the most during that time.

The researchers concluded the results shows that long-term consumption of beneficial plant-rich food can lead to lower risk of heart disease in a later age.

The other study from Brown University evaluated whether or not diets that included a dietary portfolio of plant-based foods with U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved health claims for lowering “bad” cholesterol levels (known as the “Portfolio Diet”) were associated with fewer cardiovascular disease events in a large group of postmenopausal women.

The “Portfolio Diet” includes nuts; plant protein from soy, beans or tofu; viscous soluble fiber from oats, barley, okra, eggplant, oranges, apples and berries; plant sterols from enriched foods and monounsaturated fats found in olive and canola oil and avocadoes; along with limited consumption of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol.   

The BU study analyzed whether postmenopausal women who followed the Portfolio Diet experienced fewer heart disease events. The study included 123,330 women in the U.S. who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term national study looking at risk factors, prevention and early detection of serious health conditions in postmenopausal women.  The women were enrolled into the study at an average age of 62 with the follow up exams for 15.3 years. Researchers used self-reported food-frequency questionnaires data to score each woman on adherence to the Portfolio Diet.

The researchers found that:

  • Compared to women who followed the Portfolio Diet less frequently, those with the closest alignment were 11% less likely to develop any type of cardiovascular disease, 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease and 17% less likely to develop heart failure.

The researchers believe the results highlight possible opportunities to lower heart disease by encouraging people to consume more foods in the Portfolio Diet.

The American Heart Association recommends a heart-friendly diet that include a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils.  AHA also advises limited consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugary drinks.

Thanks for reading.

Journal References:

  1. Andrea J. Glenn, Kenneth Lo, David J. A. Jenkins, Beatrice A. Boucher, Anthony J. Hanley, Cyril W. C. Kendall, JoAnn E. Manson, Mara Z. Vitolins, Linda G. Snetselaar, Simin Liu, John L. Sievenpiper. Relationship Between a Plant‐Based Dietary Portfolio and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Findings From the Women’s Health Initiative Prospective Cohort StudyJournal of the American Heart Association, 2021; DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.121.021515
  2. Yuni Choi, Nicole Larson, Lyn M. Steffen, Pamela J. Schreiner, Daniel D. Gallaher, Daniel A. Duprez, James M. Shikany, Jamal S. Rana, David R. Jacobs. Plant‐Centered Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease During Young to Middle AdulthoodJournal of the American Heart Association, 2021; DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.120.020718