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Are There Heart-Healthy Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet?

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

It’s hard not to get swept up in the hype. Google “Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet” and you’ll find a broad range of topics such as lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, a smaller waistline, and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

You’ll also find more incredible benefits such as reduced inflammation, increased “digestive enzymes,” elimination of food additives and byproducts, lower risk for the development of cataracts, and improvements in psoriasis.

There are claims that it’s better for the environment, it’s better for your bank balance, could end global malnutrition, lead to improved mood and concentration, reduce arthritis pain, encourage more graceful aging, and build a better immune system.

One site even claimed that if you adopt a vegan diet, you will become an inspiration to others!

My gosh, that’s quite the list. With this kind of hype, it’s no wonder that some people attempt vegetarianism for health reasons. Mike Tyson, Ariane Grande, and Bill Clinton all come to mind. But how many of these claims are true, and how many are sensationalized propaganda to get you to join the veg*n side?

Honestly, it’s a mixture of both. A well-planned vegetarian has very well-documented heart health benefits, with some areas of concern, particularly iron and vitamin B12 deficiency. 

Today, though, I’m focusing on heart health. So are there heart-health benefits of a vegetarian diet?

Understanding Heart Disease

Cardiovascular (or heart) disease is an overarching term that includes any disorder or condition that affects the heart or the blood vessels. An estimated 8% of American men and 6% of American women over the age of 20 have some form of cardiovascular disease.

Conditions that are included in the umbrella of cardiovascular disease include:

  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • Stroke
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Heart Failure 
  • Peripheral artery disease (affects the blood vessels in the arms and legs
  • Heart Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
  • Cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle)
  • Congenital heart disease (heart disease you are born with)

Diet and other lifestyle factors have a variable impact on cardiovascular disease, depending on the diagnosis, as well as a variety of other factors.

Heart Healthy Aspects of a Vegetarian Diet

There are a few components that make a vegetarian diet to be heart-healthy. In fact, diets that are plant-forward, ranging from vegan to flexitarian have demonstrated reductions in rates of risk of heart disease, death from heart disease, and all-cause mortality (death from any cause).

Lower intake of saturated fats and cholesterol

Saturated fats direct our livers to create more LDL (bad) cholesterol. 

You can find higher concentrations of saturated fats in most animal products including dairy, red meat, and poultry, as well as coconut and palm oils.

Fats frequently found in vegetarian diets are usually more concentrated in unsaturated fats, including those found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives.  (Fish also contains unsaturated fats).

It should be noted that no fat is completely saturated or completely unsaturated. For heart health, we want to have more unsaturated fats and less saturated fats.  Total elimination of saturated fats is near impossible.

Higher intake of heart-healthy nutrients

Vegetarian diets (or mostly vegetarian diets, such as the Mediterranean and Flexitarian patterns) tend to have higher intakes of fiber, antioxidants, and various vitamins and minerals.

  1. Fiber – fiber can actually remove LDL cholesterol from our bloodstream, lowering the cholesterol in our bodies that can lead to heart disease over time.
  2. Magnesium – magnesium plays a role in hundreds of metabolic processes. It is particularly good at reducing chronic inflammation, as measured by C RPeactive Protein, which is a common precursor to heart disease.
  3. Potassium – adequate potassium is the complement to reducing sodium in managing your blood pressure, and it is often overlooked!
  4. Phytochemicals – some plant compounds, particularly polyphenols and resveratrol have effects on the cardiovascular system. These include relaxing blood vessels (leading to a reduction in blood pressure), preventing excessive blood clotting, and reducing chronic inflammation.  These are particularly found in berries, dark chocolate, tomatoes, and grapes.
  5. Vitamins C, E, and folate – these compounds all play a role as antioxidants in the body, reducing inflammation and reducing damage caused by our environment.

Heart Health – Lower Blood Pressure

A study done on 7th Day Adventists found that when adjusted for BMI, vegetarians, and vegans (veg*ns) were found to have statistically significant lower blood pressure than omnivores. This means that maintaining a “healthy” body weight was not the sole cause of their lower rates of high blood pressure.

This study isn’t great in that all of the participants were white.

However, a meta-analysis (a large paper that compiles results from many previous studies) that included 21,604 participants of a variety of backgrounds reinforced these findings.

Heart Health: Lower Cholesterol

In a Taiwanese study of over 6,000 participants, LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides decreased in both vegan and vegetarian diets. Vegan diets also increased HDL (“good” cholesterol).

The most interesting thing about this particular study is that when they compared different factors, men seem to get more benefits from a veg*n diet than women.

Another study showed both total cholesterol and LDL levels were lower in vegetarians compared to omnivores. The vegetarians in this study were committed to their vegetarian diet for at least 15 years, showing the long-term benefits of the diet change.

In addition to cholesterol, omnivores in this study had higher lab markers of oxidative stress than vegetarians.

Heart Health: Adverse Events

So vegetarians have lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Does that really translate to lower rates of heart disease?

According to a British study, it does. Researchers there found that vegetarians had a 32% lower rate of hospitalizations and death related to heart disease.

A meta-analysis performed in 2018 showed a 25% reduction in the risk of heart disease.  Additionally, this study revealed an 8% reduction in total cancer risk for vegetarians and a 15% reduction in overall cancer risk for vegans!

A Caveat

It is imperative to point out that we do not know if the heart-health benefits of a vegetarian diet are due to the elimination of meat or the increase in vegetable consumption.

Most of the studies discussed above differentiated between different types of vegetarians but made no such distinctions among omnivores. So we don’t know if these were steak or barbecue fanatics or only ate fish.

We do know that plant-based diets that include meat can also be healthy, particularly the Mediterranean Diet pattern and many Asian diet patterns.

Wait!

Remember in the beginning when I said a well-planned vegetarian diet is heart-healthy? 

The emphasis was there for a reason.

Someone that eats french fries and a milkshake every day for lunch is still a vegetarian. Oreos are vegan. As the popularity of plant-based diets increases, more and more vegan junk food has hit the market. This is similar to the marketing of gluten-free junk foods.

Eating vegan highly processed food is still highly processed food. You will increase your intake of fat and salt. If they are using coconut or palm oil for fat, then you are looking at a whopping hit of bad-for-your-heart saturated fat. 

Excess saturated fat + excess salt = increased cholesterol + increased blood pressure = heart disease.

So just as an omnivore should avoid these types of products, so should you.  Enjoy them in small amounts, but they shouldn’t make up more than 10-20% of your diet.

Reach for all fruits and vegetables (raw and cooked), soy (without sugary, salty sauces), beans, nuts, and seeds as often as possible.

To learn more: about me or my healthy eating philosophy.

Other Lifestyle Factors on Heart Health

Diet isn’t everything! There are other aspects of our lifestyle that can have a profound effect on our hearts.

Physical Activity

Physical activity plays many roles in our well-being. This does not mean we all need to be running marathons and powerlifting. We should, however, all be moving our bodies throughout the day.

We should also be spending some time, at least  2-3 hours per week, putting that activity into higher gear and getting our heart rate up.

I could go on forever about the benefits of exercise on your overall well-being. However, we’ll keep it to the benefit to your heart, for now.

  • Manage stress (see below)
  • improve sleep (a stressor, but sleep is also important to repair tissues)
  • reduce inflammation (but don’t overdo it)
  • increase blood flow
  • reduces blood pressure

Start slow. No one should be focusing on slogging away at the gym until they are including movement throughout the day. So your first exercise goal should be to get up every hour and move around for 5 minutes. 

Do whatever you want, but make sure you are getting off your butt regularly. You will see the biggest benefit to this, rather than a kickass gym routine. Once you are used to moving more throughout the day, you can move forward to brisk walks 1-2 days per week.

Then 3-4 days per week. Then add some light strength training. Or try yoga, hiking, rock climbing, or a dance class. Find something you enjoy so you’ll stick with it!

Bonus if it’s outside.

Stress

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, when we don’t manage it, stress can multiply and lead to long-term complications, like heart disease.

Short-term, stress leads to an increase in our heart rate and blood pressure. As we fail to reduce our stress, our adrenal glands release cortisol to protect us.  This increases our blood glucose and reduces blood flow to our GI and reproductive systems, leading to poor function there.

High blood glucose, as well as underlying inflammatory processes associated with stress all increase our risk of developing heart disease.

Regular physical activity helps counteract this process. So does eating enough fruits and vegetables and reducing our intake of saturated fats, sodium, sugar, and fried foods.  However, chronic stress makes these steps hard to achieve.

Make sure that you’re taking time daily to manage your stress. Meditation, baths, light reading (no WWII novels!), funny shows or movies, and socialization can all reduce your stress levels, making other aspects of your lifestyle easier to attend to and stress easier to cope with.

Too much Alcohol

In the past alcohol, particularly red wine, has been touted for heart-healthy benefits. This comes from the fact that alcohol relaxes the blood vessels and thins the blood, potentially reducing the risk of deadly clot formation.  

However, the idea that alcohol is a healthy option ignores the fact that regular alcohol intake is linked to HIGHER blood pressure. It can also damage the heart muscle and cause an irregular heart beat.

Additionally, alcohol is linked to higher rates of certain cancers and is very irritating to the GI tract, potentially worsening symptoms of IBS and IBD. 

Don’t start drinking because someone told you it can help your heart. If you do drink alcohol, keep it to less than 1 serving per day for the best outcomes.

Tobacco

Tobacco use increases the amount of plaque that is deposited on the walls of your arteries. It also thickens the blood and makes it more likely that you’ll form damaging blood clots.

Both of these scenarios are serious risk factors for a heart attack or a stroke.

Recreational Drug Use

Obviously, different drugs carry different risk factors for your heart. Frequently, a reduction in appetite can lead to malnutrition which affects the heart. Stimulants can increase the heart rate and blood pressure, making the heart work much harder than usual. 

If you are struggling to stop using an addictive substance, reach out to a therapist, 12-step program, or a rehab to get help.

Conclusion

Adopting a vegetarian diet can offer numerous heart-healthy benefits and play a crucial role in preventing heart disease.

Through its emphasis on plant-based foods and reduced intake of saturated fats and cholesterol, a vegetarian diet helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels and blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease.

The abundance of heart-protective nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds provides antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, promoting optimal heart function and overall well-being.

Scientific studies have consistently shown the advantages of a vegetarian diet in reducing the risk of heart disease. However, it is essential to note that other lifestyle factors, such as regular exercise and stress management, also play integral roles in maintaining a healthy heart.

As you embark on a heart-healthy vegetarian journey, ensure that your diet is well-balanced and nutritionally complete. Meal planning and incorporating a variety of plant-based proteins will ensure that you meet your nutritional needs effectively.

Don’t hesitate to explore new ingredients and cooking methods to keep your diet enjoyable and satisfying.

Remember, heart health is a lifelong journey, and small changes can make a significant difference. Whether you are considering transitioning to a vegetarian diet or have already embraced this lifestyle, know that every step towards better heart health is a step in the right direction. 

Are There Heart-Healthy Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet?
Are There Heart-Healthy Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet?
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