In recent years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people following a plant-based diet. In 2020, the number of people who follow a meat-free diet in America surpassed 9.7 million – a rise of 9.4 million compared to 15 years ago!

There is a wide range of reasons why veganism and plant-based diets are on the rise. From the environmental impact of raising animals to the abundance of plant-based food in stores, it has never been easier to change your diet.

However, one of the biggest reasons people are switching to a plant-based diet is the range of health benefits that it can provide. Research has shown that consuming a diet of high-quality fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and nuts can improve health and lower the risk of certain illnesses and conditions, including cardiovascular disease.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet is one that consists of no, or very minimal, animal food. The term encompasses everything from veganism and vegetarians to pescatarians. Equally, some people who follow a plant-based diet do not completely exclude meat products, but the vast proportion of their diet is based on foods that come from plants. 

Typically, a plant-based diet is heavily based on whole foods, which are natural foods that have been refined and processed as little as possible. They are also free from additives and artificial substances. Typically, this kind of diet consists of:

  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and oats
  • Legumes such as peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas
  • Plant-based proteins
  • Fruits
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Plant-based oils
  • Herbs and spices

How does a plant-based diet lower the risk of cardiovascular disease?

Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in the world, with it currently accounting for 25% of deaths. This is an incredibly high statistic and has steadily risen in recent decades, with experts suggesting that this increased prevalence is due to the changing lifestyle habits of humans, in particular the adoption of high-fat diets, refined foods, and lack of regular exercise.

Following an animal-based diet has also been shown to alter the gut microbiome, leading to an increased production of trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). The microbiome converts choline and carnitine (found in red meat, eggs, dairy and poultry) into trimethylamine (TMA). This is in turn oxidized in the liver, becoming TMAO.

Elevated levels of TMAO have been directly linked to a range of cardiovascular disease, including coronary artery disease and acute and chronic heart failure. People with higher levels of TMAO in their blood may be at more than twice the risk of a cardiac event! It has even been suggested that TMAO could be a marker for heart disease progression.

Adopting a low-fat, plant-based diet has been shown to reduce the risk of ischemic heart disease and cerebrovascular disease, alongside lowering a range of other factors that are typically associated with heart disease. This is in comparison to food such as meat, salty snacks, and fried food which have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.

One of the biggest causes of cardiovascular disease is the build-up of atherosclerosis, which is essentially plaque that is made up of cholesterol, fat, and calcium. Over time, this plaque begins to harden, which in turn narrows the flow of blood through the arteries and restricts the amount of blood that reaches your organs.

Eating a plant-based diet can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in a number of ways, with the most common including:

 

1)      Reduce the risk of hypertension

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is one of the biggest risk factors facing people in the world today and is the most important risk factor in terms of cardiovascular disease. Estimates suggest that hypertension can affect one in three people; however, following a plant-based diet has been shown to help maintain normal blood pressure.

 In fact, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet was inspired by research that showed vegan and vegetarian diets were able to lower blood pressure in those experiencing hypertension.

 A plant-based diet is able to lower high blood pressure, thanks to producing more nitric oxide to maintain artery health, lower salt intake, and increasing potassium intake.

 2)  Lower cholesterol

High cholesterol is another major risk in terms of cardiovascular disease and is caused by consuming a diet that is high in saturated fat. Research and studies have shown that those who follow a vegan and vegetarian diet have considerably lower cholesterol levels compared to those who eat a meat-based diet.

Following a plant-based diet can help you to avoid those foods that are most typically associated with contributing to high cholesterol. However, it can also improve the amount of fiber in your diet, which reduces fat absorption.

 3)  Reduce inflammation

Another benefit of following a plant-based diet is that it can help to reduce the risk of inflammation. Following a diet that is high in meat can lead to far higher levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, which in turn can lead to high sensitivity CRP. However, research has shown that those following a plant-based diet notice far greater anti-inflammatory effects.

Of course, following a diet that is heavy in natural produce offers a range of additional benefits too. Vegans and vegetarians are known to have a lower Body Mass Index (BMI), alongside having higher rates of resting energy expenditure. This helps to reduce obesity and the many cardiovascular conditions that accompany being overweight.

Following a plant-based diet has also been shown to give people a better control of their glycemic levels and lower blood lipids.

Final thoughts

Cardiovascular disease is one of the biggest risks facing people today, but tweaking your diet to be more plant-based can help you to significantly reduce the dangers it poses. Changing your diet does not need to be sudden and you can start with these three simple steps:

  1. Reduce the amount of meat you eat; for example, cut your meat intake from five days a week to three.
  2. Focus on incorporating more fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains into your diet.
  3. Supplement animal-based or unhealthy ingredients with plant-based options.

By doing this, you will soon begin to notice the benefits within your day-to-day life, and it will become easier to continue making the shift towards a plant-based diet. Are you looking to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and boost your diet? Make an appointment with me and discover how to optimize you today. 

Want to optimize your Microbiome? Dr. Mendez has compiled all her highest impact strategies into a simple guide. You can find it now by clicking here!

References: 

Kahleova H, Levin S, Barnard N. Cardio-Metabolic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets. Nutrients. 2017;9(8):848. Published 2017 Aug 9. doi:10.3390/nu9080848

Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Travis RC, Key TJ. Risk of hospitalization or death from ischemic heart disease among British vegetarians and nonvegetarians: results from the EPIC-Oxford cohort study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Mar;97(3):597-603. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.044073. Epub 2013 Jan 30. PMID: 23364007.

DASH diet: Healthy eating to lower your blood pressure. (2019, May 8). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/dash-diet/art-20048456

Yokoyama Y, Nishimura K, Barnard ND, Takegami M, Watanabe M, Sekikawa A, Okamura T, Miyamoto Y. Vegetarian diets and blood pressure: a meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Apr;174(4):577-87. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.14547. PMID: 24566947.

Kerley CP. A Review of Plant-based Diets to Prevent and Treat Heart Failure. Card Fail Rev. 2018;4(1):54-61. doi:10.15420/cfr.2018:1:1

Danziger, L. (2020, March 9). The Number of Americans Eating Plant-Based Has Passed 9.7 Million. The Beet. https://thebeet.com/the-number-of-americans-eating-plant-based-has-passed-9-7-million-survey-finds/#:%7E:text=The%20Number%20of%20Americans%20Eating%20Plant%2DBased%20Has%20Passed%209.7%20Million