Adopting plant-based diets offers benefits for heart health

A comprehensive review of four decades of data reveals that prioritizing plants as the primary component of your diet contributes positively to heart health.

Researchers in Denmark conducted a study that demonstrated how vegetarian and vegan diets effectively lower cholesterol and fats in the bloodstream, which are known to increase the risk of heart attacks.

They emphasized that the impact of these plant-based diets, which is approximately one-third of the effect achieved by daily medication, is remarkably significant.

However, it is important to note that experts suggest that meat and dairy products have their own health benefits, and not all meat-free diets automatically guarantee optimal health.

The research analyzed 30 trials conducted since 1982, involving approximately 2,400 individuals from various parts of the world. These trials involved providing participants with specific diets and monitoring their effects on heart health.

Elevated levels of harmful cholesterol contribute to the accumulation of fatty deposits in blood vessels, leading to potential heart attacks or strokes.

The findings, published in the European Heart Journal, indicate that vegetarian and vegan diets result in the following improvements:

  • A 10% reduction in bad cholesterol
  • A 7% decrease in total cholesterol
  • A 14% decrease in apolipoprotein B (the primary protein associated with bad cholesterol)

“That corresponds to a third of the effect of a cholesterol-lowering statin [pill] – so that’s really substantial,” Prof Ruth Frikke-Schmidt, who conducted the work, at Rigshospitalet, in Denmark.

To fully understand the long-term impact of dietary changes on blood composition, the studies would have required controlling individuals’ diets for extended periods, spanning years or even decades.

However, Professor Frikke-Schmidt utilized data from statin trials to make an estimation. According to his analysis, maintaining a plant-based diet for 15 years could potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 20%.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that cardiovascular disease claims the lives of nearly 18 million individuals annually.

Despite the evident health advantages associated with adopting a more plant-based diet, Professor Frikke-Schmidt cautioned that individuals should not discontinue any prescribed medication for heart disease solely based on dietary changes. It is essential to continue following medical advice and treatment protocols.

She consciously opts for a predominantly plant-based diet, occasionally including chicken and white fish, citing reasons such as personal health, environmental concerns, and personal preference.

It is worth mentioning that other dietary patterns, like the Mediterranean diet, which incorporate meat, have also been demonstrated to promote good health.

Professor Frikke-Schmidt highlights that the exclusion of meat is not a strict requirement, but the key emphasis lies in the term “plant-based” as it benefits both individual well-being and the environment.

However, it is important to note that participants in the trials were provided with “healthy” vegetarian and vegan meals. It is crucial to recognize that vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes such as chickpeas, and whole grains significantly differ from sugary snacks, crisps, and sweetened beverages, despite both being devoid of meat.

“Not all plant-based diets are equal,” Prof Aedin Cassidy, from Queen’s University Belfast, said. And diets such as “those including refined carbohydrates, processed foods high in fat/salt” would still be unhealthy.

There have also been questions about the current wave of highly processed vegan foods, which are markedly different to a vegan diet from the 1980s.

Quadram Institute chief scientific officer Prof Martin Warren said: “Animal-based products such as meat do represent nutrient-dense foods that have other benefits.

“Similarly, crop-based diets can be low in certain micronutrients – so in general, reducing meat consumption but maintaining a broad and varied diet is good for health.”