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Plant-Based Diet for Heart Health

Is a plant-based diet good for your heart? More research needs to be done, but early studies suggest it may have a number of benefits.

If your diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and meat substitutes such as soy, you may be less likely to have certain risks for heart disease and other heart problems, such as:

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On the other hand, the typical meat-based Western diet may increase the risk of heart disease, compared with diets high in fruits and vegetables. One study shows that a Western diet increases a woman's risk of getting heart disease by 46%.

Types of Plant-Based Diets

There are many different types of plant-based diets. The three most common ones are:

  • Vegan. No meat, eggs, or dairy products are eaten.
  • Lacto-vegetarian. You don't eat meat or eggs, but dairy products are OK.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian. You don't eat meat, but you do eat dairy products and eggs.

Most studies of such diets have been small. So far, it's been difficult for researchers to determine whether the heart benefits seen in these diets are due to the diets or if they are related to other factors, such as weight loss.

But there have been large-scale studies of the so-called Mediterranean diet, which isn't entirely plant-based and has been linked to a lower risk for heart disease and stroke. The Mediterranean diet is higher in fruit and vegetable consumption than the typical American diet and allows small amounts of poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products, but almost no red meat.

Plant-Based Diets and Heart Risk Factors

In an analysis published in 2009 in the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers reviewed 27 studies on the heart benefits of four different types of plant-based diets:

  • Vegan
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian
  • Primary plant-based (similar to the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, but allows small amounts of lean meat)
  • Combination diet -- a traditional vegetarian or vegan diet combined with nuts, soy, and/or fiber

The researchers found that people who ate the combination diet decreased their total cholesterol and LDL "bad" cholesterol by 20% to 35%.

Those who ate the vegan diet had LDL decreases of 15% to 25%. People who ate the lacto-ovo-vegetarian and primary plant-based diets had significantly smaller decreases: 10% to 15%.

The researchers also noted that plant-based diets are associated with:

  • Lower levels of triglycerides
  • Lower concentrations of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP)
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Decreased body weight and body mass index (BMI)
  • Decreased risk of death from any cause, including heart disease
  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Better blood sugar control in patients with diabetes

The heart benefits of eating more plant-based foods are well-established by large-scale studies such as the Nurses' Health Study and the male Health Professionals Follow-up Study.

Studies show that people who eat the most fruits and vegetables have a 20% reduced risk of heart disease and a 27% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, especially stroke.

Further research shows that each 10-gram increase in daily fiber from sources such as whole grains is associated with a 27% decreased risk of dying from heart disease.

WebMD Medical Reference

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