What are the benefits of a vegan diet for heart health?

The biggest killer in the US is heart disease. Here’s how a vegan diet can help you lower your risk.

Looking back

Ancient Egypt had a princess called Ahmose Meryet Amon who died at the age of 40. In those days, little was known about why. In 2011, technological advances revealed that the Egyptian princess had died from a condition that persists today: heart disease.

According to Gregory Thomas, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Amon’s life could have been prolonged by double bypass surgery today and she would have been encouraged to eat less fat and exercise more.

While advances in modern medicine have undoubtedly saved many people from premature death due to heart disease, it remains one of the world’s biggest killers – thousands of years after it first appeared.

What are the causes of heart disease? How can we reduce the risk? 

Would a plant-based diet reduce the chances of developing a life-threatening illness? Let’s take a closer look at these questions and round up some heart-healthy food suggestions, too.

Heart disease 

The global burden of heart disease is significant. Worldwide, about 550 million people suffer from heart and circulatory diseases, or one out of every fourteen people.

Since the 50s, heart disease has been the leading cause of death in the US. Every 40 seconds, one person has a heart attack, according to the CDC. In 2020, it was responsible for one out of every five deaths in the country.

Heart disease can take several different forms. The most prevalent cause of heart attacks is coronary artery disease, also known as coronary heart disease or ischaemic heart disease.

In this condition, the blood vessels around the heart become clogged with cholesterol, making it difficult for the heart to receive enough oxygen, nutrients and blood.

Heart disease

Causes of heart disease

Heart disease can be caused by a “multitude of factors,” says Yelena Wheeler, MPH, RD. These can include environmental stressors, ethnicity, genetics, lack of physical activity, obesity, socioeconomic status and smoking.

According to one study published in 2018, Black Americans were 30 per cent more prone to die from heart disease compared to non-Hispanic whites [1]. The reason for this is a combination of several factors, most of which can be attributed to systemic racism.

Physical activity levels are lower among Black Americans because they live in less safe, walkable neighbourhoods. Black Americans also suffer higher poverty rates, which means medical care can be challenging to access. 

One in five Black households in the US lives in a food desert, where fresh, affordable, nutritious food is not readily available [2]. Since a healthy diet can lower the risk of heart disease, this is a significant issue.

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Diet and heart health

Elevated levels of saturated fat, red meat, processed sugar and salt are all associated with the Standard American Diet. Despite this, the diet remains popular. Consumption of processed meat, for example, has remained the same in the US since 2001 despite its link to heart disease [2].

Nevertheless, some foods can increase heart disease risk, while others can reduce it. According to Wheeler, diet is the only factor we can control to prevent heart disease.

According to research, a plant-based diet rich in complex carbohydrates, fibre, antioxidants and healthy fats promotes good heart health.

Several studies have suggested that eating a plant-based diet may lower cardiovascular disease risk in both young and old people [3].

Plant-forward, nutrient-rich diets are associated with a 52 per cent lower risk of heart disease, per researchers.

“There is no dietary cholesterol in plant-based diets, generous amounts of fibre and micronutrients, and very little saturated fat,” explains Ashley Kitchens, MPH, RD, LDN. 

Heart health improvement 

You can improve your heart health by making a few lifestyle changes. Among the most important factors are quitting smoking, exercising and reducing alcohol consumption. 

A recommendation is to eat fewer unhealthy processed foods, such as bacon and cheese, and more healthy, plant-based foods.

“Eat more plant-based foods high in fibre and healthy fats, like avocados, artichokes, legumes and pistachios,” says Wheeler.

It is essential to maintain weight, digestion, blood sugar control, lower cholesterol and prevent atherosclerosis (the build-up of fats in artery walls) by balancing fibre and healthy fats.

Foods high in cholesterol and saturated fat, like meat, cheese, and eggs, cause plaque to build up in arteries, leading to heart disease. 

Vegan recipes that are heart-healthy

It’s important to work hand-in-hand with your healthcare provider before making any major dietary changes, like switching to a plant-based lifestyle. This is so they can monitor your lab results and manage your medications, if necessary.

Until then, here are a few tasty heart-healthy recipes to try [4]:

Vegan recipes that are heart-healthy
  • Butternut squash soup

Like sweet potatoes, butternut squash is also high in potassium, which can help manage blood pressure levels. When blended, it gives soups a creamy, velvety texture, perfect for chilly winter evenings.

  • Warm lentil, sweet potato and arugula salad

Among the heart-healthy ingredients are sweet potatoes (high in potassium and fibre), lentils (high in potassium and fibre, folate) and arugula (high in calcium and magnesium). Even though they’re good for you, they don’t necessarily have to taste bland. Serve them in a warm salad topped with a zesty homemade dressing.

  • Sweet potato chili

In addition to being a great heart-healthy ingredient (and delicious), sweet potatoes contain soluble fibre that may lower cholesterol levels. Among the many ways to prepare sweet potatoes are chilli. For a warming and flavorful weeknight dinner, combine them with onions, bell peppers and kidney beans.

  • Firecracker tofu with broccolini and chili garlic oil

Tofu is another plant-based food linked to good heart health. A 2020 study revealed that people who consume one serving of tofu a week, which is rich in a heart-healthy compound called isoflavone, have an 18 per cent decreased risk of heart disease than those who have it less than once a month [4]. Tofu is also a highly adaptable ingredient to cook with, as it readily absorbs the flavours of herbs or spices.

  • Quinoa and chickpea burgers

There’s a significant link between quinoa and chickpeas and heart health.In addition, they make an excellent burger patty when combined with chia seeds, onions and mushrooms.

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[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6265893/
[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/coronavirus-leading-through-the-crisis/charting-the-path-to-the-next-normal/too-many-black-americans-live-in-food-deserts
[3] https://www.heart.org/en/news/2021/08/04/eating-a-plant-based-diet-at-any-age-may-lower-cardiovascular-risk
[4] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/tofu-consumption-linked-with-decreased-risk-of-heart-disease/

The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.