Kim Williams, MD, a cardiologist and president of the American College of Cardiology, became a vegan in 2003 after finding out that his cholesterol levels were high — and it changed his life. He went vegan because he was impressed by how much the heart scans of one of his patients improved after she tried a plant-based diet: She went from being at high risk for heart disease to being at normal risk in just a matter of months.
A plant-based diet can decrease plaque in the blood vessels and lower risk of diabetes and stroke, says Dr. Williams.
The good news for avid meat eaters is that you don’t have to completely quit meat to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet. Simply reducing the amount of animal products in your diet lowers your risk of high blood pressure. As you start replacing meat with fish, switch to a vegetarian diet, or go completely vegan, your heart disease risk gradually goes down, Williams says.
“People say eat everything in moderation, and I tell people that moderation results in moderate disease instead of severe disease,” he says.
Following are eight of the many ways a plant-based diet can protect your heart from disease:
1. Plants Have Less Saturated Fat
Saturated fats, or fats that are saturated with hydrogen, are typically solid at room temperature and are found in meat and animal products like beef, lamb, butter, cheese, and high-fat dairy products. They’re also found in coconut oil, cocoa butter, and palm oil.
According to medical experts at the American Heart Association (AHA), eating saturated fats increases the amount of cholesterol in your blood, which in turn raises your risk for heart disease and stroke. The organization recommends that people on a 2,000-calorie diet have only about 13 grams (g) of saturated fat per day.
AHA dietary guidelines suggest eating four to five servings each of vegetables and fruits, six to eight servings of whole-grains, two to three low-fat or nonfat dairy-based foods, and only three to six ounces (oz) of meat, poultry, or seafood per day. This diet clearly relies heavily on plant-based foods.
2. You Can Cut Fatty Meats From Your Diet
Our bodies need a small amount of cholesterol to function, but most of us make enough on our own without adding it to our diets through fatty meats. Cholesterol is only found in animal-derived food products, not plants.
Why does excessive cholesterol matter? According to the American Heart Association, having high cholesterol in your blood is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and heart attack.
The bad form of cholesterol (LDL) is one of the products that makes up atherosclerotic plaque. Other fats, waste products, and calcium can also contribute to this buildup of plaque in the arteries (which carry blood away from the heart), causing them to become blocked and hardened, and potentially leading to a heart attack or stroke.
Low blood cholesterol levels can be achieved by replacing saturated fats and oils with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, found in foods like avocados, olive oil, and nuts. Less then 10 percent of daily calories should come from saturated fats.
But the link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease is still a subject of debate. The most recent recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee removed the previous cholesterol limit of 300 milligrams per day because “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum [blood] cholesterol.” The report noted that cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern.”
But most nutrition experts agree that replacing fatty meats with plant-based foods is a healthy change.
3. Plants Increase Fiber in Your Diet
A well-rounded, plant-based diet should also increase the amount of fiber you get. And increasing fiber is one way to reduce the bad cholesterol circulating in your body, says Joan Salge Blake, RD, clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Fiber interacts with the bad cholesterol in your digestive tract and helps remove it more quickly from your body, Salge Blake says. This decreases the overall amount of bad cholesterol absorbed in your body. Fiber is found in foods like beans, lentils, fruits, vegetables, and nuts, so she recommends making healthy food swaps, like reducing or cutting meat out of chili and adding beans to the pot instead.
4. Eating Less Meat Lowers Diabetes and Obesity Risks
Eating meat, or consuming higher amounts of saturated fat, is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Having diabetes, in turn, is thought to make you twice as likely to experience heart disease and stroke, notes the AHA. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), having diabetes increases your risk of having heart disease or stroke at an earlier age.
“If you are a meat person and start changing your diet — even if it’s just following the My Plate icon where a smaller amount of your food comes from protein sources — you are going to cut calories and lose weight,” Salge Blake says.
Part of the weight loss can be due to the decrease in saturated fat you get in a plant-based diet. In addition, Salge Blake says, you can expect weight loss because fruits and vegetables have fewer calories and more water. This helps you fill up before you fill out.
5. Fruits and Veggies Lower Blood Pressure
One well-known and often recommended diet for people with hypertension is the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. While this diet is focused on reducing the amount of sodium in the diet, it also aims to lower meat intake.
The DASH diet calls for you to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, and to eat only 5 ounces (oz) of protein-based foods daily. You should have no more than 26 oz of meat, poultry, and eggs each week.
A large hypertension study supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found the DASH diet lowered blood pressure among participants when compared to a typical American diet.
6. Plants Enrich Your Diet With Omega-3s
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, eating omega-3 fatty acids can reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, and it can also lower your cholesterol. Omega-3 fatty acids are not made in the body, so the only way to get them is through your diet.
Some kinds of omega-3s, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found in cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna. DHA and EPA are converted into usable omega-3s more readily than is the plant-based alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). For this reason, many dietary guidelines that recommend lowering the amount of meat and poultry are increasingly including the regular consumption of fish.
ALA is found in many plant-based foods, including pumpkin seeds, canola oil, soybeans, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
7. A Vegan Diet Adds Beneficial Nutrients
A host of nutrients in a vegan diet are heart-protective, Salge Blake says. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, plant sterols, phytochemicals, and potassium, which are all thought to reduce the risk of heart disease.
According to the AHA, potassium helps to reduce the effects of sodium, which is known to raise blood pressure in the body.
“Increasing potassium really makes a difference in lowering blood pressure. And it seems to work even better when it’s included in a plant-based diet,” Williams says.
Potassium is found in a wide range of plant-based foods, including sweet potatoes, spinach, mushrooms, soybeans, almonds, bananas, apricots, tomatoes, and cantaloupe.
8. You Can Avoid Unhealthy Components of Meat
Williams says that it’s difficult to tease out whether the benefits of plants or the absence of meat makes a vegetarian or vegan diet better than a meat-heavy one.
“It may be that a vegetarian diet is really healthy … and it might be that the non-vegetarian [diet] is so unhealthy,” he says.
When you replace animal products with plant-based ones, you’re not only adding beneficial nutrients, but you’re taking harmful ones out, too. Along with cholesterol and saturated fats, for example, meat also has heme iron, which comes from the blood in meat and can create reactive oxygen — a contributor to heart attacks, Williams says.
Another compound, carnitine, which is found almost solely in red meat, eggs, and high-fat dairy, can be toxic to the body. Carnitine is converted to trimethylamine N-oxide in the gut, a metabolite that’s toxic to the system and acts as a transporter of cholesterol to the arteries, according to Williams.
In the end, Williams says he would like to see more studies that look at hard outcomes of vegetarian and vegan diets. Until then, he is convinced by the “absolute improvements in myocardial blood flow” seen in observational studies — and in his own patients.