Choose the right plant-based diet for your heart

September 20, 2018 | by Mary Gardner, RD, LDN

You knew you weren’t doing your heart any favors when your diet included a lot of red meat and foods loaded with saturated fat, so you’ve said goodbye to your favorite hamburger joint.

Now you’ve been hearing about the health benefits of plant-based diets. Does this mean you have to become a full-scale vegetarian (vegan) to benefit your heart?

Vegans eat no animal-based foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. Their plant-based diet includes fruits, vegetables, grains (such as brown rice and oats), seeds, nuts and legumes (dried beans and peanuts). These foods are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that support heart health.

If this approach sounds too extreme, there’s good news. A recent study showed even a slightly lower intake of animal foods, combined with a higher intake of healthy plant foods, was associated with a lower risk of developing heart disease.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, looked at the diets of 200,000 healthcare professionals over a period of 20 years. The focus was on how much the individual’s diet was plant-based and what effect that level had on their risk for heart disease. Researchers also noted whether the participant’s non-meat food choices were healthy, such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains, or less healthy, such as sweetened beverages, cookies and french fries.

The results? The more participants stuck to a diet that focused on healthful plant-based foods, the less likely they were to develop heart disease during the length of the study. Those who followed a healthful plant-based diet, even if it included some animal foods, were more likely to survive during the study period than those who followed an unhealthful plant-based diet that included a lot of processed foods.

If you would like to adopt a more plant-based diet, start by making one or two minor tweaks to how you eat. You might eliminate one of your regular menu items that’s animal-based, such as processed meats, or dedicate one day a week to an all plant-based diet.

But if you’d like to go even farther on the plant-based path—without going full-vegan—consider a vegan variation: Semi-vegetarians don’t eat red meat but include chicken and fish with plant foods, dairy and eggs. Pescatarians eat a plant-based diet, but also eat seafood.

Lactovegetarians eat plant foods plus cheese and other dairy products. Some people follow this diet, but also consume eggs. They’re called ovo-lactovegetarians.

You’ll need to make sure your new food plan includes all the nutrients you need. For example, if you do choose vegan, you may need a supplement for vitamin B-12, which is found naturally in animal sources. You can also look for fortified cereals or fortified soy beverages. For adequate protein, start a rotation of sources, such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, quinoa and tofu.

If you’re no longer eating red meat and eggs, you’ll need other sources of iron such as dried beans, spinach or fortified cereal. Ditching dairy? Look for sources of calcium, such as soy milk or nut milk, vegetable greens, such as broccoli, and some legumes. Zinc, which is found in shellfish, is also available in grains, nuts, legumes and supplements.

To help you track your nutritional intake and status, read labels at the grocery store, get regular check-ups, and check the free smartphone app, MyFitnessPal.com, which provides nutrition information on millions of items. It also gives you a tool for tracking what you’ve eaten each day.

Also, if you have concerns or questions about changing your diet, a session with a dietitian can help you develop a meal plan that will work for you.

To make an appointment with an Edward-Elmhurst Health dietitian, call 630-527-3200.

Learn more about healthy eating and get healthy recipes.

Learn more about heart and vascular services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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