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"Reduce Your Heart Disease Risk With a Plant-based Diet"

Plant-based diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can lower your risk for heart disease. Virtua cardiologist Rozy Dunham, MD, FACC, can help you make the switch.

Updated February 25, 2021

By Rozy Dunham, MD, FACC, Cardiologist, Virtua Cardiology

You’ve probably heard people talk about following a “plant-based” diet. What does that mean? Is it the same thing as being vegetarian or vegan? And can I still eat meat every once in a while?

Think of “plant-based” as an umbrella of diets, with other nutrition plans falling under it. The Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets are all popular examples. The main idea is making fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts the central part of your meals while limiting meat and dairy.

Plant-based diets are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals that can help lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol, and lose weight. So if you are living with or are at risk for heart disease, plant-based diets can be beneficial. 

What Does the Research Say?

Researchers have been studying the benefits of plant-based diets since the 1980s. Studies published recently in the Journal of the American Heart Association and JAMA Internal Medicine found that diets high in plant-based foods can decrease your risk of dying of heart attack, stroke, or heart failure by 32 percent, and developing type 2 diabetes by 30 percent.

Other research has found that plant-based diets improve cardiovascular conditions such as angina (chest pain) and atherosclerosis, which occurs when arteries become narrowed or blocked due to a buildup of a cholesterol-containing substance called plaque. Plant-based diets also have been proven beneficial in reducing the risk of a second cardiac event in someone who has already had a heart attack.

There’s also evidence a plant-based diet can reduce your risk for developing cancer, and can improve the symptoms of autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. 

Making the Switch to a Plant-Based Diet

Switching to a plant-based diet is a lifestyle change that can be intimidating. But you don’t need to dive head-first and become fully vegetarian or vegan.

You can start by replacing one meal a day with a plant-based selection and gradually add more to your diet each week. For instance, swap a sandwich for a salad for lunch, or have a handful of nuts for snack instead of a candy bar.

The key is eating more of the right plants and eliminating unhealthy foods. Eat brown rice and whole-wheat bread instead of white bread and white rice – which are highly processed and have a high glycemic index. Even though French fries are made from potatoes, they’re loaded with sodium and can lead to higher blood pressure.

You also don’t have to give up meat entirely. The Mediterranean diet, for example, allows for fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy products, as well as the occasional piece of red meat (but not bacon, hot dogs, or other processed meats). A study in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating 3 ounces of unprocessed red meat, three times a week, did not worsen cholesterol or blood pressure levels.

Need help getting started?

Your health care provider and a dietitian can provide advice, including supplements you may need to take to replace nutrients normally consumed through animal products. There are also plenty of websites, apps, and books with recipes and even pre-made grocery shopping lists for inspiration.

Achieve Your Diet Goals!

Virtua’s registered dietitians offer private and group weight-loss coaching options to help you achieve a healthy lifestyle. For more information about our weight management programs and services, call 888-847-8823.