Is a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet Good for the Heart? 

Plant-based diets have long been linked to a healthy immune system, increased fiber intake and lower cancer risk, but how does a mostly meat-free lifestyle impact the heart? 

A pair of recent long-term studies published by the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2021 found that both young adults and postmenopausal women had fewer heart attacks and were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease when switching to a more plant-based diet.  

In the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study, young adults between the ages of 18 to 30 were tracked for 32 years. They were graded on their overall intake of the following categories of food, each based on their known association to cardiovascular disease:  

  • Beneficial: Fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and nuts.  
  • Neutral: Potatoes, refined grains, lean meats, shellfish.  
  • Adverse: French fries, high-fat red meat, salty snacks, sweets and soda.  

Those who ate mostly plant-based foods and little to no adverse animal products were 52% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.  

In the other study, which followed 123,330 postmenopausal women initially free of cardiovascular disease over a 15-year period, it was concluded that women who followed a strict vegetarian diet were 11% less likely to develop any type of cardiovascular disease. Those women were also 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease and 17% less likely to develop heart failure.  

A handful of past studies also linked plant-based diets to fewer heart-related issues, but none had sample sizes as large as those collected during these newer studies.  

Choosing the healthiest plant-based foods  

Giving meat the heave-ho from your diet doesn’t mean highly processed foods are out of your life automatically. Low in fiber, vitamins and minerals, highly processed foods are also chockful of saturated fat, sugar and salt.   

Many meat alternatives – like meat-free “bacon” and “sausage” – are high in sodium content and artificial additives. A lot of the veggie burger brands you see in a grocery store freezer pack their patties with stabilizers and preservatives.  

So, if you do buy meat-free products, it’s generally best to opt for bean-based and plain options and add your own herbs and spices later. Flavored meat alternatives are more likely to contain more salt and additives.  

Beyond plant-based meat alternatives, try incorporating these heart-healthy foods and minerals into your diet:  

Potassium: Food rich in potassium can manage high blood pressure by lessening the effects of sodium. Natural potassium-rich foods include bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes, apricots, oranges, lima beans, mushrooms, tomatoes and peas.  

Nuts: Research shows that people who regularly consume nuts enjoy lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, lower levels of inflammation linked to heart disease and a decreased risk of heart attacks. Try eating two servings of unsalted nuts per day.  

Other heart-conscious eating tips 

Replacing all that steak and pork with plants and healthy fats will help you chip away at your cholesterol levels while improving your cardiovascular risk profile.  

If you find it a little overwhelming to go cold turkey, first try weeding out processed meats like bacon, hot dogs and sausages; and opt for lean cuts of beef like flank steak, sirloin or round cuts. As you move towards a plant-based diet, opt for unfried, minimally processed, lean poultry and fish.  

Other heart-healthy eating practices include:  

  • Choosing whole grains over refined grains 
  • Whole fruits over fruit juices  
  • Unrefined vegetable oils over partially hydrogenated versions 
  • Unsweetened beverages like water, tea and coffee over sugary sodas and energy drinks  

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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