Here’s a statement that may not be considered “news” to some: eating more plant-based foods and fewer animal foods may contribute to a healthier heart and cardiovascular system. Consumers may have heard about some studies on this subject or perhaps their doctor advised them accordingly. Although the correlation has been in the public subconscious, it might not have been compelling enough to modify behaviors or grocery lists...until now.
A new landmark study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), tied eating more plants and less meat to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers found that adults who adhered to diets with reduced animal-based foods (least healthy group at median 5.6 servings and healthiest group at 3.6 servings per day; and red and processed meats at 1.5 and 0.8) and more healthy fruits and vegetables, compared with those who had the lowest adherence, were associated with a 16% lower risk of cardiovascular disease; about 32% lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular disease; and 18% to 25% lower risk of early death from any cause.1 The healthier group also included much lower levels of smoking and alcohol intake.
Those in the highest quintiles of the plant-based diet and pro-vegetarian diet index had higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, fiber, polyunsaturated fats, and many micronutrients, as well as lower intakes of red and processed meat and saturated fat. The authors stated, “All these characteristics can contribute to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure and low‐density lipoprotein cholesterol, reducing inflammation, and improving glycemic control.”
The researchers further concluded that in a community‐based cohort of U.S. adults without cardiovascular disease at baseline, diets consisting of more healthy fruits and vegetables and lower in animal foods were associated with a lower risk of incident cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease mortality, and all‐cause mortality in a general population.
As a result of these findings, there’s a good chance that more consumers will pay closer attention to their food choices, especially plant-based protein vs. animal protein.
But what about “plant-based protein,” specifically? The conclusions in the AHA study support the findings of a separate, recently-published study in Japan that suggests that the choice of dietary protein source matters for overall longevity.2
In this study, researchers followed nearly 71,000 middle-aged Japanese adults for an average of almost two decades. Compared to people who consumed the smallest amount of plant protein, participants who consumed the largest amount of plant protein were 13% less likely to die during the study and 16% less likely to die of cardiovascular causes. Overall in the study, 12,381 people died, including 5,055 from cancer, 3,025 from cardiovascular disease, 1,528 from heart disease and 1,198 from cerebrovascular disease. The study found that people who replaced just 3% of red meat with plant protein were 34% less likely to die of any cause, 39% less likely to die of cancer, and 42% less likely to die of heart disease.
It’s important to note that these studies do not show causality and more research is needed to better understand the health impacts of plant-based diets.
While the authors of these studies name foods associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease— “fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant proteins”—they stop just short of naming one of the most important sources of plant protein
Seeds: Among the Most Valuable Foods in a Plant-Based Diet
Seeds are one of the 10 plant-based proteins you should eat, according to McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN, the renowned registered dietitian nutritionist behind the website “Nutrition Stripped.”
“Seeds such as sunflower, sesame, chia, hemp, flax, and pumpkin seeds are all rich in both protein and minerals, earning them a slot on the list of best vegan protein foods,” she writes.
Kooienga singles out hemp seeds, No. 2 on her Top 10 list of foods, for their nutrient density.
“Hemp seeds not only contain protein but also supply plenty of heart-healthy fats, mainly Omega 3 fatty acids,” she writes. She notes that hemp seed protein contains all the essential amino acids, along with one called arginine, which helps with the production of nitric oxide, a vital molecule for a strong cardiovascular system.
Kooienga finds that hemp seeds have a “delicious, subtly sweet and nutty flavor” and says they’re so small that they can easily be added to any recipe to boost plant-protein content.
Some of her suggestions for using hemp seeds (and hemp seed protein) include sprinkling on top of salads; stirring or blending into soups or stews to slightly thicken; adding to smoothies for a creamy texture; blending into hummus, dips, or dressings; sprinkling on top of porridge, oatmeals or other cereals; or adding into baked goods and desserts for added protein.
Is there a nutrient-dense, protein-packed “superfood” missing from your ingredient list?
Learn more at these sources:
- Hyunju K , Caulfield L, Garcia‐Larsen V, Steffen L, Coresh J, and Rebholz C. Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults. Journal of the American Heart Association. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865
- Budhathoki S, Sawada N, Iwasaki M, et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med. Published online August 26, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.2806. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-diet-plants/more-plant-protein-tied-to-longer-life-idUSKCN1VG2CA
- Sandoiu A. Plant based diet may reduce cardiovascular death risk by 32%. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326003.php