Science

Plant-based diet can slash the risk of heart disease by up to 52%, study finds 

Eating a largely vegan diet made up of plant-based foods can slash the risk of heart disease by up to 52 per cent, new research suggests. 

A variety of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless fish and chicken, nuts and legumes are all key to staving off health problems later in life.

Conversely, researchers advise that young adults limit saturated fat, salt, red meat, sweets and sugary drinks to prevent heart attacks in middle-age.

While they didn’t look at the reason behind the link, previous research suggests plant-based diets can lower your blood pressure, improve cholesterol and help you lose weight – all risk factors for heart disease.  

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Eating a largely vegan diet made up of plant-based foods can slash the risk of heart disease by up to 52 per cent, new research suggests (stock image) 

VEGETARIAN DIETS CAN LOWER YOUR CHOLESTEROL 

Plant-based diets really do lower cholesterol, according to a review of nearly 50 studies.

Vegetarians generally eat more greens, fruits and nuts which means they have a lower intake of saturated fat, researchers found.

These foods are naturally rich in components such as soluble fibre, soy protein, and plant sterols (a cholesterol found in plants), all of which lower cholesterol. 

The research, led by Dr Yoko Yokoyama, from Keio University in Fujisawa, found vegetarians had 29.2 milligrams less of total cholesterol per decilitre (one tenth of a litre) than meat-eaters. 

The long-term study, led by scientists at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis, looked at the diet of some 5,000 people over a 30-year period and whether they developed heart disease. 

They were not told what to eat. Instead, the quality of their diet was assessed at the start of the study and then after seven years and 20 years based on the A Priori Diet Quality Score (APDQS).

The APDQS was made up of 46 food groups split into beneficial foods (such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains); adverse foods (such as fried potatoes, high-fat red meat, salty snacks, pastries and soft drinks); and neutral foods (such as potatoes, refined grains, lean meats and shellfish). 

This was done based on their links to heart disease.

People who got higher scores ate a variety of beneficial foods that largely made up a plant-based diet, while those who scored lower ate more adverse foods.  

During 32 years of follow-up, researchers found that 289 people involved in the study developed heart disease (including heart attack, stroke, heart failure, heart-related chest pain or clogged arteries).

They also discovered that those who scored in the top 20 per cent on the long-term diet quality score (meaning they ate the most nutritionally rich plant foods and fewer adversely rated animal products) were 52 per cent less likely to develop heart disease.

Meanwhile, between year seven and 20 of the study when the ages of participants ranged from 25 to 50, those who improved their diet quality the most were 61 per cent less likely to develop heart disease, compared to those whose diet quality declined the most during that time. 

Researchers advise that young adults limit saturated fat, salt, red meat, sweets and sugary drinks to prevent heart attacks in middle-age (stock image)

Researchers advise that young adults limit saturated fat, salt, red meat, sweets and sugary drinks to prevent heart attacks in middle-age (stock image)

There were few vegetarians among the participants, so the study was not able to assess the possible benefits of a strict vegetarian diet, which excludes meat and fish.

‘A nutritionally rich, plant-centred diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health,’ lead author Yuni Choi said.

‘A plant-centred diet is not necessarily vegetarian. People can choose among plant foods that are as close to natural as possible, not highly processed. 

‘We think that individuals can include animal products in moderation from time to time, such as non-fried poultry, non-fried fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.’ 

Fellow author David E. Jacobs said: ‘As opposed to existing diet quality scores that are usually based on small numbers of food groups, APDQS is explicit in capturing the overall quality of diet using 46 individual food groups, describing the whole diet that the general population commonly consumes. 

‘Our scoring is very comprehensive, and it has many similarities with diets like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Healthy Eating Index (from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service), the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Mediterranean diet.’

Meanwhile, a separate study published last month found that eating red and processed meat such as bacon, sausages and ham can significantly increase the risk of developing heart disease.

Analysing data from 13 different studies involving 1.4 million people allowed the team from the University of Oxford to examine the impact of meat on health.

They found that for every 50g per day of processed meat, such as bacon, ham and sausages eaten, the risk of coronary heart disease goes up by 18 per cent.

For unprocessed meat such as pork, lamb and beef, the risk increased by nine per cent over no red meat. There was no risk increase with poultry. 

The team say their study didn’t investigate the cause, but suggest it could be down to higher concentrations of saturated fat in red meat and salt in processed meat. 

The latest study has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide 


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