Plant-based diets have become much more popular recently, and for good reason. The number of published scientific reports on plant-based diets tripled in the last decade showing the many health benefits of this approach to eating.  

In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) recently updated its recommendations for heart-healthy eating based on the results of two recent research studies on eating more plant-based food choices. Their conclusion? Plant-based diets can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease at any age. 

What is a plant-based diet?    

A plant-based diet is one that includes foods from plants, meaning vegetable sources. This includes abundant amounts of dark-colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins like beans, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds, and other polyphenolic-rich compounds found in green and black tea and coffee. Some allow healthy oils, while others restrict them.

While that may sound like a standard vegetarian diet, which sometimes allows dairy and eggs, a purely plant-based diet does not include any animal products. A “plant-forward” diet, on the other hand, is mostly plant-based but does allow for occasional animal protein. Those proteins include healthier options such as chicken or fish and only small, occasional indulgences as part of your overall focus on plant foods. 

The addition of plant-based meats to a plant-based diet has also been controversial. Initial versions of these processed engineered meats were high in saturated fat (from coconut oil) and sodium, and many dietitians recommend against eating them regularly.

What is the science behind plant-based diets? 

The quality of foods in a plant-based diet is key. In one large study, eating less healthy, processed plant-based foods, such as potato chips, cookies and soda, was associated with increased heart disease risk. These types of nutrient-poor, highly processed plant-based foods typically contain lots of added sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats, all of which have been linked to heart disease.

A large body of science supports plant-based diets. The AHA points to the findings of two recent research studies. The first showed that eating plant-based diets in young adulthood reduced the risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular conditions in middle age. A second showed that among women after menopause, an increase in plant-based foods was associated with reductions in cholesterol, which in turn reduces risk of heart disease and stroke

Overall, the mechanisms for the observed benefits of plant-based diets on heart health are as follows:

  • Plant proteins contain more of some types of amino acids such as arginine, which have been linked to improved vascular function through nitric oxide.
  • Plant-based foods contain more soluble fiber, healthy fats, and other naturally occurring compounds.
  • Reducing your risk of heart attack and stroke are not the only benefits of plant-based eating. Reduced risk of diabetes, cancer, and some neurodegenerative (brain) diseases has also been observed. 

Making the change to a plant-based diet

Following the USDA MyPlate model is a good way to easily make the change to plant-based eating. The MyPlate model recommends filling one-half the plate with fruits and vegetables, one-quarter of the plate with a fiber-rich carbohydrate or whole grain, and one-quarter of the plate with a healthy protein. Following that guide automatically makes three-quarters of your plate plant-based. 

The difference between plant-based diets and others is that the protein portion of the plate is from beans, legumes, lentils, nuts, and soy foods, rather than animal proteins. Meals that follow these guides are easy — think Buddha bowls, large salads, and simple substitutions. 

Websites that can help you develop shopping lists and plan meals that focus on plants include the Forks Over Knives beginner’s guide and Everyday Health. Some meal kits offer plant-based options for easier preparation and cooking. The bottom line: Eating plant-based is easier than you think and has numerous health benefits. 

So be kind to your heart and think about making the change to a diet that focuses on plants. For more information on healthy eating, visit the Nourishing section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Karen E. Aspry, MD

Karen E. Aspry, MD, MS, FNLA, FACC, is a cardiologist with the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute, with expertise in general, invasive, and preventive cardiology. She is director of the Lipid and Prevention Program, and has an active practice in the treatment of cholesterol disorders.