One in four deaths in the United States is caused by heart disease, according to government data. Major risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity can be caused by a poor diet, and as a nation, we’re still highly dependent on meat as well as fast or processed food that contribute to our deteriorating heart health. But all isn't lost — conversely, this means that the increase in heart disease can also be reversed by a change in what we eat.
In this regard, top cardiologists Dr. Joel Kahn and Dr. Heather Shenkman believe in the power of plant-based diets as a way to improve health, particularly heart health. They’ve seen and practiced first hand that most if not all of the impressions about going vegan — lack of protein and other essential nutrients, for instance — are just myths. A whole food plant-based diet is completely healthy, especially for the heart.
What can plants do for the heart?
Information from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine indicates that people who don’t eat meat have lower levels of the bad type of cholesterol in the body, or LDL. Excessive cholesterol is responsible for the build-up of plaque in the arteries, along with fat, calcium, and other types of waste in the blood stream. This condition, called atherosclerosis, makes it difficult for blood to flow properly. The blocked arteries might even rupture suddenly, causing a heart attack or stroke.
Unlike animal-derived products, plants contain virtually no amount of cholesterol, at least the type that is considered bad for your body. Everyday Health notes that whole food plant-based ingredients are also lower in saturated fats, which are known to increase cholesterol levels in the blood. However, even plant-derived products like coconut oil, cocoa butter, and palm oil contain saturated fats. The best sources of unsaturated fats for vegans then are avocados, olive oils, and nuts, as the body still needs a small amount of cholesterol to function.
Vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts are also high in fiber, which is known to reduce the amount of bad cholesterol in the body by eliminating it from the digestive tract even before it reaches the arteries. The Spicy Chickpea Avocado Sandwich recipe on Vegetaryn is a great example of a fiber-rich dish that you can easily make at home. The avocado also provides a sufficient amount of cholesterol that won’t be bad for your heart.
A well-planned vegan diet can also reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity, which contribute to heart disease. Of course, it has to be practiced with healthier lifestyle habits, like exercise and quitting smoking.
Who needs to go vegan?
Anyone who cares about their heart health should consider veganism. The number of deaths caused by some type of heart disease every year is indicative that we’re doing something wrong with our bodies, in which food plays a huge part.
People who want to live healthier lifestyles and those who need to control their weight can also enjoy the advantages of going vegan. Plant-based diets are also advisable for older adults, as medical experts from the National Institute of Aging state that cardiac mechanisms responsible for protection deteriorate with age. The heart undergoes structural and functional changes as you get older, making it weaker and more vulnerable to disease. Healthcare experts at Maryville University note that the population in the US continues to age, leading to a higher demand in and more complex forms of healthcare services. Given this information, along with the rate of heart disease, it doesn’t take an expert to connect the two and come to the conclusion that we all need to be more proactive with our heart health.
Adopting healthier habits is definitely a step in the right direction. It starts with shifting to a more plant-heavy diet and less dependence on meat and processed food. Even if the transition to a vegan diet is gradual, the more you see the changes (such as reduced weight and higher energy levels), the more you’ll learn to appreciate veganism as a lifestyle. For more information, check out documentaries like Forks Over Knives and What The Health.