Heart Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

The food you eat has an impact on your health, and plant-based and plant-forward diets have been shown to have a positive impact on heart health. 

Many people eat a diet that’s out of balance and emphasizes foods that are known to worsen heart health—an abundance of red meat, trans fats, saturated fats, salt, and sugars. The average American diet includes a lot of heavily processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value. It delivers plenty of starch but little of the vitamins your body craves.

If you have heart disease or a family history of heart disease, changing how you eat can help improve your heart health and lessen your risk of more serious problems. 

What is a plant-based diet?

Let’s start with the terminology, because it can be a bit confusing. When some people use the term plant-based diet, it means a vegan diet where none of your food sources come from animals. In other uses, plant-based means vegetarian, where you don’t eat meat but might eat dairy or eggs. Sometimes people eating a plant-based diet also eat fish, which classifies as pescatarian. 

A plant-forward diet means one that focuses primarily on plants but may include small amounts of meat, dairy, or seafood. The Mediterranean diet and DASH diet are both plant-forward approaches to eating that still include small amounts of healthy meat or fish and some dairy products. 

Mediterranean and vegetarian diets have been shown in many large-scale studies to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and other problems like some cancers. Depending on age, they can lower cardiovascular disease risk between 16 to 32 percent.

Bottom line: eating more plants (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes) and fewer animal products is good for your health.

Getting started on a plant-based diet

There are plenty of sources out there that talk about eating a plant-based diet, but there are a couple of things you need to consider first.

First, it’s not enough to just eat plants, seeds, and nuts in greater quantities. You have to eat the right ones. An unhealthy plant-based diet is just as bad as an unhealthy diet with a lot of meat in it.

Second, approach plant-based or plant-forward eating as a lifestyle change, not a short-term diet to lose some weight. It’s a complete shift in how you approach nutrition and help your body perform at its best. You might need to ease into it over time, and that’s okay. 

Here are a few tips to get you started: 

  • Build meals around vegetables, not meat. Create a salad with lots of colorful veggies or fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables and include a small portion of meat. 
  • Get creative with replacements. Instead of a big bowl of ice cream for dessert, have some fruit. Or instead of having a regular burger, make a portobello mushroom burger or a black bean burger. Find ways to replace the things you love or augment them instead of focusing on denying yourself. A denial mindset doesn’t set you up for long-term success.
  • Start your day with whole grains. One of the easiest things you can do is change your breakfast to oatmeal, buckwheat, quinoa, barley, cracked wheat, or some other hot cereal. 
  • Cook a vegetarian meal at least once a week to start, then increase. Get creative with your meals—there are lots of recipes that go beyond salad. Draw inspiration from cultures where vegetarian meals are more common.

Like any lifestyle change, you don’t have to do it all at once. Making a gradual change over time has a greater chance of success for most people, and those gradual changes add up to improve your heart health.

Have questions about heart health or want to make an appointment with one of our specialists? Contact the Oklahoma Heart Hospital today. We can guide you towards the healthiest choices for your heart.