Plant-Based Diet Could Lower Heart Disease Risk:—But 'You Don't Have to Give up Foods Derived From Animals Completely,' Scientists Say

Eating a diet high in plant-based foods and low in animal products has been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in a study.

Researchers looked at data on 12,168 men and women aged between 45 to 64 years old who were taking part in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study. The participants, who didn't have heart disease at the start of the project, were followed up periodically between 1987 and 2016. The group members told researchers what they usually ate and drank, including portions.

The team used this information to determine whether the participants followed a plant-based diet, and how healthy it was. A plant-based diet, for instance, can include sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, researchers said in their study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. A healthy plant-based diet includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, as well as tea and coffee, and low levels of animal products.

Factors including the height, weight, BMI, sex, age, and race of the participants was considered, as well as their educational attainment, and how much they exercised.

Over the course of the study, researchers noted how many participants developed cardiovascular disease—including heart attacks, stroke, and heart failure—and how many died.

Eating a plant-based diet was linked to a 16 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, while the chance of dying from such conditions was 32 percent lower compared with those who followed other diets. These participants were also 25 percent less likely to die within the period of the study.

Those who scored highest for healthy, plant-based diets ate an average of 4.1 to 4.8 servings of fruit and vegetables per day, and 0.8 to 0.9 servings of red and processed meat per day. They also ate more nutrient-rich carbohydrates and plant protein, and lower levels of foods containing saturated fat and cholesterol. These participants also ate more polyunsaturated fat, which is found in foods like oily fish.

Members of the less healthy plant-based group ate 2.3 servings of fruit and vegetables per day, and 1.2 servings of red or processed meat. They also ate more carbohydrates which included less fiber and nutrients than the other group.

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A stock image of vegetarian food. A study has linked a plant-based diet to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Getty

Followers of the healthy plant-based diet were less likely to have or die from cardiovascular disease, or die overall. But those who ate the most animal products had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and overall death compared with those who ate the least.

Similarly, past studies have shown a link between plant-based regimes and heart health, but those findings weren't generalizable, the authors said.

"Results from our study suggest that progressively increasing the intake of plant foods by reducing the intake of animal foods is associated with benefits on cardiovascular health and mortality risk," the authors wrote.

However, the authors accepted the study was limited because they had relied on participants being honest about what they ate. And as it was observational, the researchers couldn't prove cause and effect.

Casey M. Rebholz, assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said the findings highlight the importance of eating more vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fruits, legumes and fewer animal-based foods to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

She commented in a statement: "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."

"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," she explained.

Dr. Mariell Jessup, the chief science and medical officer of the American Heart Association, said the body recommends eating a plant-based diet featuring foods rich in nutrition and low in added sugars, salt, 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 (salt). Unprocessed foods, like fresh fruit, vegetables and grains are good choices," Jessup said.

Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, told Newsweek:

"This research is yet more evidence that including more plant-based foods in your diet can help to lower our risk of a heart attack or stroke.

"You don't have to cut out all animal products to reap the health rewards, but most of us could benefit from more foods like fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds in our diets, especially if we're consuming more than 90 grams a day of red and processed meat."

Taylor suggested bulking out meals featuring meat with beans or lentils, having some vegetarian meals each week, or swapping cakes and biscuits with fresh fruit or unsalted nuts.

"But don't make the mistake of assuming all plant-based foods are healthy options," she said. Switching to sugary drinks, chips, cookies is "unlikely to reduce your risk of heart and circulatory diseases," she said.