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Eating more plant-based foods is linked to reduced risk of heart disease among adults and in older middle-aged women, new research has found. The findings, based on two studies published as part of an American Heart Association report, show that plant-centric diets are heart-healthy and nutritious “at any age”.
Two new scientific studies show that eating more plant-based foods is good for the heart—both for older women and throughout adulthood. While the first study finds an association between eating a plant-centric diet at young adulthood and lower risk of heart disease, the second revealed that higher intake of plant-based food lowers cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women.
Both studies have been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the peer-reviewed journal of the U.S. medical research nonprofit American Heart Association (AHA).
Long-term plant-centric diets
In the first study, scientists analysed whether long-term intake of plant-forward diets starting from young adulthood would lower the risk of heart disease in midlife. It tracked nearly 5,000 adult participants, who were 18-30 years old at time of enrollment, and involved 8 follow-up exams from 1987-1988 to to 2015-16.
Participants were not instructed to follow any particular diet, but instead were interviewed in-depth about their dietary history and had their consumption habits scored by the researchers. Those who had higher scores ate more heart-beneficial foods, primarily corresponding to a nutritionally rich, plant-centred diet.
It marked one of the first studies focusing on how diets consisting primarily of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes with smaller amounts of low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish and avoidance of red meat and sweets and sugary drinks would impact long-term heart health.
“Earlier research was focused on single nutrients or single foods, yet there is little data about a plant-centered diet and the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease,” shared Yuni Choi, lead author of the young adult study and researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.
During the three-decade-long follow-up period, the top 20% who scored the highest on their long-term diet score and ate a plant-centric diet were 52% less likely to have heart disease, such as heart attacks, stroke, chest pain or clogged arteries.
The researchers also found that those who improved their diet quality between ages 25 and 50 by eating fewer animal-based foods and more plant foods, had a 61% lower risk of developing subsequent cardiovascular disease compared to participants who saw their diet scores decline over time.
‘Portfolio Diet’ and reducing cholesterol levels
In the second study, scientists investigated how the “Portfolio Diet” impacts heart disease risk among postmenopausal women. The diet is rich in nuts, plant proteins from soy and legumes, whole grains, okra, eggplants, barley, oranges, apples and berries and fats from avocados, olive and canola oil while limiting saturated fat intake.
What the researchers found in the large-scale study involving more than 123,000 women with an average age of 62 in the U.S. was that close alignment with this plant-forward diet lowered the risk of any type of heart disease by 11%. More specifically, the risk of coronary heart disease was reduced by 14%, while heart failure risk was lowered by 17%.
Commenting on the results, senior author Dr. John Sievenpiper of St. Michael’s Hospital and associate professor at the University of Toronto said the findings “present an important opportunity” for people to “incorporate more cholesterol-lowering plant foods into their diets.”
“With even greater adherence to the Portfolio dietary pattern, one would expect an association with even less cardiovascular events, perhaps as much as cholesterol-lowering medications,” Sievenpiper continued. “The results indicate the Portfolio Diet yields heart-health benefits.”
Evidence of plant-based diet benefits
The latest studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association add to the mounting bed of scientific evidence showcasing the benefits of eating more plant-based foods.
Last year, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that higher consumption of protein from plants such as legumes, whole grains and nuts is linked to lower risk of developing a number of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Meanwhile, regular intake of red meat and other animal proteins was associated with a higher mortality rate from all causes.
A recent Nature Medicine article also found people with diets rich in healthy plant-based whole foods were more likely to have more gut microbes which are linked to lower risk of developing obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It represented one of the most comprehensive large-scale studies to date into the association between diet and healthy gut microbes.
Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.