Eating more plant-based foods and less animal products lowers the risk of death due to cardiovascular diseases, a new study has concluded. Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, this new research emphasises the importance of plant-based diet for better heart health and a lower risk of dying from a heart-attack, stroke or other cardiovascular diseases.
Researchers used data from the “Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities” study on 12,168 middle-aged adults who were followed from 1987 to 2016. Participants were classified, based on one of four diet indexes; a plant-based diet index, a pro-vegetarian diet index (preference for plant-derived foods but not exclusion of animal foods), a healthy plant-based diet index and less-healthy plant-based diet index. In each category, individuals were given higher or lower scores, based on the intake of the specified quality of plant-based and animal foods. For example, a healthy plant-based diet was characterised by consumption of whole grains, vegetables and plant proteins, whereas an unhealthy plant-based diet had higher consumption of plant sources of food with refined carbohydrates and sugar.
Among other factors, researchers also considered the height, weight, BMI (body mass index), sex, age, race as well as participants’ educational attainment and how much they exercised. The goal was to find out how many participants developed cardiovascular diseases and how many died from a direct result of such diseases. It is important to note that the participants were not suffering from heart disease at the start of the study in 1987.
Researchers found that greater adherence to a healthy plant-based diet index was associated with 19% lower risk for development of cardiovascular diseases and 11% lower risk for all-cause mortality. Eating a healthy plant-based diet was linked to 16% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, while the chance of dying from such conditions was 32% lower, compared to those following other diets. These participants were also 18% to 25% less likely to die within the period of the study.
Those who scored highest for healthy, plant-based diets ate an average of 4.1 to 4.8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day and 0.8 to 0.9 servings of red or processed meat per day. They also ate more nutrient-rich carbohydrates and plant protein, and less of foods containing saturated fat and cholesterol. These group of participants also consumed more polyunsaturated fat, which is found in foods like oily fish. Participants in the less healthy plant-based group ate 2.3 servings of fruit and vegetables per day, and 1.2 servings of red or processed meat. They also consumed more carbohydrates which had less fibre and nutrients than the other group of participants.
Overall, the study concluded that followers of the healthy plant-based diet were less likely to have cardiovascular diseases or die from such diseases or other causes, for that matter. But those who ate the most animal products had a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases and overall death, compared with those who consumed the least.
This is one of the first studies to examine the proportion of plant-based versus animal-based dietary patterns in the general population, noted Dr Casey Rebholz, lead researcher and assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Earlier studies have shown heart health benefits from plant-based diets but only in specific populations of people such as vegetarians or vegans.
Dr Rebholz has hopes that future research on plant-based diets would examine whether the quality of plant foods—healthy versus less healthy—impacts cardiovascular disease and death risks.
“The American Heart Association recommends eating a mostly plant-based diet, provided the foods you choose are rich in nutrition and low in added sugars, sodium (salt), cholesterol and artery-clogging saturated and trans fats,” said Dr Mariell Jessup, chief science and medical officer of the American Heart Association. Dr Rebholz further added, “While you don’t have to give up foods derived from animals completely, our study does suggest that eating a larger proportion of plant-based foods and a smaller proportion of animal-based foods may help reduce your risk of having a heart attack, stroke or other type of cardiovascular disease.”
Although the study has discovered the importance sticking to a plant-based diet for a healthier heart, readers should take note that the research conducted was entirely observational and does not prove cause and effect.