The powerful impact of a plant-based diet on heart health (what the science says)

I’ve enjoyed a vegan diet for nearly 25 years. Back in the day there wasn’t a whole lot of information out there, yet within a very short period of adopting a totally plant-based diet, I noticed that my energy levels felt much better, my excess body weight fell effortlessly off and my immune response seemed way stronger than before. Since then a lot of research has come to light about the healing health benefits of adopting a healthy plant-based diet.

In this article, we are looking specifically at the impact of heart health with the plant-based diet. We’ll explore what the scientific evidence has to say before expanding on tips for eating a heart-healthy diet. 

What is heart disease?

Heart disease (cardiovascular disease) basically happens when the blood vessels become blocked or narrow. Fatty deposits build up in the arteries (atherosclerosis) and there is a general increase in the risk of blood clots. In turn, this can lead to… 

  • a heart attack where the blood flow to the heart is temporarily blocked 
  • heart failure, where the heart fails to pump blood around the body properly
  • a stroke where the blood flow is cut off to part of the brain which can either cause damage to the brain or death
  • chest pain caused by the restriction of blood flow to the heart (angina)

What does science say about heart health and plant-based foods?

According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “Groundbreaking research shows that a plant-based diet doesn’t just prevent heart disease but that it can manage and sometimes even reverse it.”

“Dr. Ornish’s landmark study tested the effects of a plant-based diet on participants with moderate to severe heart disease. There were no surgeries or stents—just simple diet and lifestyle changes. Within weeks, 90 percent of chest pain diminished. After just one month, blood flow to the heart improved. After a year, even severely blocked arteries had reopened. At the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Esselstyn tested the same approach on patients with severe heart disease and published similar results. Thirty years later, all of the compliant patients are still thriving.” 

You can find the research PDF file here: Intensive Lifestyle Changes for Reversal of Coronary Heart Disease

“The Lifestyle Heart Trial found that 82% of patients diagnosed with heart disease who followed this plant-based diet program had some level of regression of atherosclerosis and 91% had a reduction in the frequency of angina episodes, whereas 53% of the control group, fed the American Heart Association diet, had progression of atherosclerosis.” (Source

Plants do not contain dietary cholesterol

It is thought that one of the reasons that vegan diets can be so effective for supporting heart health is because they do not contain dietary cholesterol.

Dietary cholesterol comes from animal products (i.e. meat, dairy, eggs etc). Plants are considered cholesterol free because they contain a form of cholesterol (called phytosterols) that the human body does not absorb. The body makes it’s own ‘essential’ cholesterol out of plants.

Vegan diets have been shown to reverse cholesterol issues in time.

Plant foods have an abundance of supportive nutrients

Plant-based diets are high in fibre and contain an abundance of supportive nutrients. They are brimming with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients and that which is supportive of heart health. On the other hand, animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy contain large amounts of cholesterol, saturated fats, which can lead to clogging the arteries with plaque, significantly increasing the risk of heart disease. 

Potassium is found abundantly in a healthy vegan diet in foods such as avocado, sweet potato, banana, spinach and black beans. This important mineral is known to decrease blood pressure, which is helpful against hypertension and high blood pressure.

Other important heart healthy facts

Plant-based diets are naturally high in anti-inflammatories, which is excellent news for heart health since inflammation is part of heart disease.

According to the Independent UK: 

“Scientists say a plant-based diet may help to reduce the risk of deadly heart failure. According to a study of five different kinds of diet, people who eat a lot of fruit and vegetables are 42 per cent less likely to develop the condition than those who consumed fewer plant-based foods.”
(Source: Reducing Heart Failure Risk with Plant-based Foods)

Scientific studies consistently show that eating a plant-based diet significantly reduces the risk of high blood pressure. Vegans tend to have lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and significantly lower odds of hypertension, in comparison to non-vegans. (Source)

Tips for maintaining a heart-healthy plant-based diet

If eating a plant-based diet is new to you then see it as an adventure. It can be a fun discovery into a whole new world or colourful and incredibly delicious foods.

1. Learn to make new dishes that are tasty and easy to make

There are loads of super tasty, healthy, simple recipes out there. Be discerning though, because there is nothing worse than being put off with new foods that aren’t that great. The internet is awash with both incredible and rubbish recipes. See it as an adventure. There is something perfect for everyone. If one thing doesn’t work, then try something else. Start simple. Think colourful. Embrace new stuff and unleash your inner kitchen passion.

Here are some ideas to get you started…

Easy Sweet Potato & Chickpea Vegan Curry decadently delicious and super healthy by Trinity

2. Eat a balanced diet for optimal health

A balanced diet varies for everyone, but as plant-based diets go, it will typically include healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, olives etc), vegetables and dark leafy greens, fruits, some grains (i.e. rice, quinoa, oats), legumes and pulses (i.e. beans, lentils, peas). If you keep it healthy and balanced you will likely get way more nutrients into your body than ever before.

Don’t worry too much about if you are getting enough protein because that’s a bit of a myth. A typical balanced plant-based diet means that you’ll get more than enough protein for optimal human health (see point 5 for busting the protein myth).

3. Make it a part of your lifestyle

Plant-based eating is not a fad! Not only could it keep you very healthy, but it also makes the world a better place. It has been tried and tested for generations and now people are taking up plant-based eating at an unprecedented rate. Plant-based eating is here to stay and it is not going to stop. Think of it as a lifestyle rather than a diet. Be proud that you are taking your health into your own hands and setting an example for everyone around you. Make no apologies. You don’t have to bang a drum about it – people will notice that you seem happier, more uplifted and have a twinkle in your eyes and they’ll naturally be curious about what you are up to.

3. Find plant-based or vegan recipe websites and You Tubers that inspire you (and subscribe to them)

There is some excellent stuff out there (and also some rubbish, so be discerning). Have a look around, explore, discover and you’ll find inspiration out there that works for you. Everyone has a different vibe and a unique style, there is something for everyone. Subscribe to your favourites by signing up for their newsletter, which means you’ll get regular updates in your inbox. Finding inspiration can be invaluable on your journey.

4. Leave reminders to inspire you

If you see an inspiring super healthy photo in a magazine or on a blog, then cut it out or print it. Pin it on your fridge door to remind you of that vibrant food. You are more likely to want to make delicious food if you see food that gets you excited.  

Likewise, write down some motivational quotes on your fridge door or bedroom mirror to remind yourself why you are on this journey. Here is one that you’ve probably already heard of…

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”
Hippocrates

5. The protein myth busted

Not getting enough protein on a plant-based diet is a bit of a myth (unless you eat a calorie restricted diet). If you eat a varied mix of plant-foods you will easily get all the amino acids you need to create a healthy abundance of protein in your body.

To show an example of this I’ve drawn up a meal plan for one day for an average woman on a plant-based diet. This is just one of infinite variations.

The official recommended daily amount of protein by the DRI (Dietary Reference Intake)  is 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight. This averages out at around 46g per day for an average woman (56g for the average man). Some experts recommend a higher amount at 75g per day (so I’ll go with the higher amount for the sake of arguement). If you excercise a lot (and I don’t just mean taking long walks every day but if you are athletic or do endurance training), you will need more protein (easy to attain).

This simple plan below reaches approximately 86.45g of protein for one day (easily above the highest recommended amount of protein). I’ve included the protein amount written after each ingredient where applicable so you can get an idea of the amounts of protein in various types of plant foods.

BREAKFAST

“Oat & banana porridge with flaxseeds, chia seeds and plant-based milk”

  • Oats (half cup) 6g
  • Plant-based milk milk (1 cup) 4g
  • Banana (1 large) 1.5g
  • Flax seeds (1 tablespoon) 1.3g
  • Hemp seeds shelled (1 tablespoon) 3.5mg

LUNCH

“Quinoa salad”

  • Quinoa cooked (1 cup) 8g
  • Avocado medium sized (half) 2g
  • Cherry tomatoes (half a cup) 0.65g
  • Black beans (half a cup) 19.5g
  • Handful of basil leaves 1g
  • Hemp oil/Apple cider vinegar/sea salt/pepper

SNACKS

Nuts (half cup) 10g

EVENING MEAL

“Baked potato with lentil & mushroom chilli”

  • Baked potato (1 large) 6g
  • Lentil chilli (1 cup) 18g
  • Mushrooms (1 cup) 5g

Total protein: 86.45g
(Well above the highest recommended amount)

I hope that this article gives you some food for thought and encourages you to explore further.

Please do check out my recipes for more inspiration here. I’ve been making healthy plant-based food for 25 years and work as a retreat chef and workshop/retreat leader teaching people how to make healthy food with love… Kind Earth Kitchen Recipes

Anastasia

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