You might have heard that eating a plant-based diet can help ward off heart disease, but not just any plant-based diet will do. In fact, if you pair all those vegetables with refined grains and sugars, you could be doing more harm than good.
In a study of more than 200,000 Americans that was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers found that generally speaking, people who ate a lot of healthy plant foods like vegetables, whole grains and beans had a lower heart disease risk.
However, a diet can technically be plant based and still be bad for you. Those who ate plant-based diets that were heavy in foods like bread, pasta, sweets and potatoes fared just as badly as those who ate animal-based diets, if not worse!
Lead researcher Ambika Satija pointed out that not all plant-based foods are the same and urged people to take the nutritional quality of plant foods they consume into account.
The research team assessed the quality of plant foods that people ate and how it related to their risk of heart disease. The studies began in the 1980s and ‘90s, and participants provided detailed information about their diets every two years via questionnaire over the course of two decades. They also answered questions about their lifestyle, medical history and health behaviors. More than 8,600 participants had died of heart disease or suffered a heart attack by 2013.
To make their comparisons, the researchers divided participants into ten different groups depending on how closely they followed a plant-based diet. Then they compared those whose plant-based diets had the healthiest foods to those that did not.
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The people who had the lowest risk of heart disease were those who ate healthy plant foods like vegetables and fruits, along with nuts, legumes and whole grains like brown rice and cooked oatmeal. Those who ranked in the top 10 percent in terms of healthy plant food diets had an impressive 25 percent lower risk of developing heart disease than the people in the bottom 10 percent when it comes to diet quality.
Unhealthy plant food diets pose greater heart disease risk than animal-based diets
Meanwhile, the opposite effect was seen among those whose diets consisted of a lot of less-healthy plant foods like pasta, crackers, white bread, potatoes, and sugary fruit juices. In fact, these people were 33 percent more likely to develop heart disease. Those who ate a lot of animal products like butter, cheese and meat also had a higher heart disease risk, but those on the unhealthy plant food diets were more at risk.
While the study did not take a specific look at vegan or vegetarian diets, past studies have linked those ways of eating with a lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Nevertheless, it’s possible to approach such a diet the wrong way and put your health at risk.
Make a few small changes at a time
In an editorial that accompanied the research, Rush University Medical Center Cardiology Chair Dr. Kim Allan Williams said that healthy plant-based diets should be a greater focus of dietary recommendations. She advised people to start making smaller tweaks that they can sustain as they transition into a healthier way of eating rather than making dramatic changes all at once.
This is sound advice for anyone who is looking to make a change. It’s never too late to improve your eating habits, and although these findings might inspire you to overhaul your diet, don’t feel pressured to do everything at once. Begin by cutting out red and processed meats and sweets, and then start cutting out other bad foods, like white bread and sugary fruit juice, a few weeks later. This will make your new way of eating easier to stick with and you won’t feel as deprived. And don’t forget that exercise can also help enhance heart health!