Using a Plant-Based Diet to Improve Heart Health
There are many reasons to consider shifting to a plant-based diet. A big one is heart health.
Even people who have eaten poorly much of their life can dramatically reduce heart disease risks by shifting to a whole-food, plant-based diet. Even without becoming a vegetarian or vegan, shifting eating habits to include more fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and other plant foods can help decrease inflammation and oxidative stress which can cause health problems.
Having high cholesterol can lead to heart problems down the road. Most plant foods are low in saturated fat which can increase cholesterol levels. Moreover, plants don’t contain cholesterol and the fiber in them can help reduce LDL cholesterol, known as “bad” cholesterol. Plants also have only trace amounts of sodium, which negatively affects heart health. Some plant foods are rich in potassium, such as bananas, sweet potatoes and peas, and can help reduce blood pressure.
Beyond heart health, a plant-based diet can also help prevent Type 2 diabetes and many cancers. It can also help with weight loss, beneficial to overall health. Because plant-based diets are typically packed with whole grains, beans, nuts and legumes, they provide great sources of protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates. The emphasis on fruits and vegetables makes them naturally high in fiber, vitamins and phytonutrients.
Rich in antioxidants
Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants that can help protect your healthy cells from unhealthy molecules called free radicals before they do damage. Research shows vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene and lycopene can act as antioxidants. A variety of foods are high in antioxidants, such as blueberries, kale and beans. Most plant foods contain several phytochemicals. In fact, researchers have found more than 5000 individual phytochemicals in plant-based foods. A tomato, for example, has more than 100.
Dietitians advise eating a rainbow of foods, since different-colored produce provides different benefits. Here are examples of phytochemicals associated with cancer-inhibiting benefits:
- Carotenoids in red, orange, yellow, and green plants (carrots, squash, and broccoli) may help stop cancer growth and the development of heart disease, and boost immunity.
- Flavonoids in berries, apples, citrus, onions and even coffee may fight inflammation and tumor growth.
There are plant-based foods that are not as healthy. They include fruit juice, refined grains, such as excess white rice and pasta, and too many starchy vegetables like potatoes. Try to limit these higher-calorie foods.
A plant-based diet does not have to exclude all animal products. But start by setting goals to make several plant-based meals per week or make plant-based foods the stars of the show at meals. Some ways to do that include:
- Meatless Mondays. Cook a meal that substitutes meat with alternatives made with legumes or soy.
- Plant-based breakfasts. Get an early boost at breakfast with a bowl of oatmeal. Sprinkle some nuts and cinnamon on top and serve it up with a side of fruit.
- Fruit as dessert. Chunks of fresh pineapple, wedges of mango or a bowl of sliced kiwi can satisfy a sweet tooth.
- Increase servings of plant-based foods. Try adding more legumes, grains and vegetable side dishes at every meal.
- More produce. Aim for a minimum combination of five fruits and vegetables daily. Pledge to try a new veggie once a week
- Limit red meat consumption. Try for no more than three portions per week. Chicken and fish are healthier alternatives.
Shanthi Appelö is a registered dietitian and health and wellness spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more tips on lowering the risks of heart disease, visit ahealthiermichigan.org.