Newsflash: Eating more plants is good for you. Though this may not be mind-blowing information, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association provides new evidence on just how beneficial plant-forward diets can be. We all know that eating fruits and veggies is a good idea, but this study focused on how a plant-based diet affects mortality and heart health. The researchers also investigated how vegetarian diets can help reduce heart problems. Long story short: Cutting out animal proteins and replacing them with fruits and vegetables can make a big difference in your overall health.
The study analyzed a large swath of health data going back decades. Starting in 1987, 15,792 American men and women between the ages of 45 and 64 were enrolled in a study to measure the risk of atherosclerosis (fat and cholesterol buildup in the walls of arteries) in different communities. They were actively monitored for two years. This new study culls data from follow-up visits with these subjects, which occurred six times between 1989 and 2017.
The subjects self-assessed; at baseline and on their third visit (from 1993 to 1995), they filled out questionnaires concerning their food intake. Incident cardiovascular disease events—including heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, and atherosclerosis—were reported via annual telephone calls, hospital records, and death records. None of the participants had cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study.
Researchers analyzed participants’ diets and scored them according to four different scoring indexes: overall plant-based, healthy plant-based, less healthy plant-based, and provegetarian. Each index varied in the kinds of foods it assessed. The overall plant-based index was the most comprehensive, and included plant-based food sources that are high in refined carbohydrates, like fruit juices and desserts. The provegetarian index was the simplest because it did not include these food sources. By using these scoring methods, the researchers could take the self-reported food intake data from the participants’ questionnaires and use it to determine if they followed a plant-based diet.
After 25 years of logging data, the researchers took stock. Among the pool of subjects, there had been 4,381 incident cardiovascular disease events (such as heart attacks or strokes), 1,565 deaths caused by cardiovascular disease, and 5,436 deaths not directly caused by cardiovascular disease (called “all-cause” deaths). Researchers found that incidence rates for these events and for mortality as a whole were lower among healthy plant-based, overall plant-based, and provegetarian dieters. After adjusting for risks like smoking and alcohol consumption and other factors, the researchers found that adhering to “diets that are higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods” led to “a lower risk of incident cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease mortality, and all-cause mortality.”
Put simply, the more the participants shunned animal proteins, the more their mortality rate and rate of cardiovascular issues dropped. The study showed that higher intakes of “whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, tea, and coffee” consistently lowered the risk of cardiovascular issues and helped people live longer. Elsewhere, “higher intakes of eggs and red and processed meat were associated with a higher risk” of those outcomes, the researchers write. They didn’t find any significant association with dairy, fish, and seafood—but don’t interpret that as an excuse to run out and grab a Filet O’ Fish.
The plant-forward diets have a number of effects that curb cardiovascular disease, the researchers write. Eating more fruits and vegetables and skipping animal proteins helps lower blood pressure, cuts down cholesterol, reduces inflammation, and assists in regulating blood sugar. All of these factors help your heart and blood vessels stay healthy.
So if you’re looking to live longer and keep your body in shape, go with a salad—or even go vegan.