Plant-Based Diet Benefits | Plant-Based Diet for Heart Health

  • When it comes to nutrition for better heart health, a plant-centered diet (as opposed to a low-fat diet) may be best to lower cardiovascular disease and stroke risks, new research shows.
  • The plant-centered diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy, and fish while limiting red and processed meats, sugary treats, salty snacks, and soda.

    Cycling offers big-time benefits for your ticker—that’s backed up by studies like this one and this one—but when it comes to nutrition for better heart health, the standard advice to lower your fat intake may not be the best track, according to research presented at the recent Nutrition 2021 Live Online conference.

    Researchers looked at data from a nutrition study that followed about 5,000 people over 30 years, tracking their food choices as well as their prevalence of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

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    Two types of diets, low-fat and plant-centered, were both associated with lower LDL “bad” cholesterol, but the latter was also linked with lowering long-term heart risks.

    The plant-centered diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy, and fish while limiting red and processed meats, sugary treats, salty snacks, and soda. The low-fat diet focuses on lowering saturated fat in the diet as much as possible.

    Research team leader David Jacobs, Ph.D., Mayo Professor of Public Health in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, said in a statement that dietary guidelines in the United States and Europe have recommended eating low amounts of saturated fat specifically for its heart benefits. While this is not necessarily wrong, he stated, the study results suggest plant-centered diets may be even better.

    In part, that’s because targeting only saturated fat may not take into account the healthy fats that come from plant-based sources, he added. For example, that could include walnuts, avocados, and olive oil.

    “Another major factor is that plant-centered diets will be high in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals,” Shena Jaramillo, M.S., R.D., owner of Peace and Nutrition, told Bicycling. “This will support heart health in many ways, including lowering total cholesterol, supporting healthy digestion, and preserving renal function and bone health.”

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    All of these are both directly and indirectly related to long-term heart health, she added. Plus, plant-centered diets will generally be lower in saturated and trans fats, so you’re actually getting the best of both worlds.

    “While plant-forward diets will still have many healthy fats, they tend to be more unsaturated fatty acids, which are healthier for the body and the heart,” she said.

    In terms of why low-fat dairy tends to be included in these type of diets—as opposed to whole milk yogurt, for example—Jaramillo said higher-fat dairy usually adds fat without adding more nutrients. This comes into play when people are drinking and eating a significant amount of dairy rather than just a few servings per day.

    “Whole-fat milk is higher in saturated fats than plant-based products such as dairy alternatives,” she said. “While it’s okay to get saturated and trans fat during in the day in moderation, too much of these can potentially be problematic for heart health long-term.”

    However, it’s worth noting that full-fat dairy keeps you feeling fuller for longer, “so you’re not snacking on empty calories later in the day, and the fat allows for certain nutrient absorption, like vitamins A, D, E, and K,” according to Runner’s World. Plus, a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested there’s actually no significant link between dairy fats and heart disease and stroke.

    All that’s to say, it’s best to consult with a nutrition or medical expert if you’re considering changing your diet to meet your specific health and performance goals. As we all know, the world of nutrition is always changing and evolving as researchers learn more.

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