Plant-based eating and heart health: What you need to know
Plant-based eating has many health benefits, as it can help with weight management, lower blood sugar levels, and protect against certain cancers. But are they also heart-healthy? From increasing fiber to limiting processed foods, here’s how you can help your nutrition clients eat their way to better heart health.
Plant-based diets have been all the rage in the health and wellness space over the past decade. Because of this, many people have ditched animal products to move toward these dietary patterns, but does eating plant-based always translate to better health?
Science says yes….and no. While eating more plant-based foods has been shown to help reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, aid with weight management, lower blood sugar levels, and protect against certain cancers, simply removing animal products from an already poor diet is not going to improve your client’s overall health.
So, how can you, as a nutrition professional, help your clients eat for better heart health with the addition of plants? Before diving into some ways you can encourage more plant-based eating habits, let’s first understand what constitutes a plant-based diet, and when it can do more harm than good.
What is plant-based eating?
Generally speaking, plant-based diets put an emphasis on consuming mostly plants and can include the following eating styles .
- Vegans: This is a dietary approach that is based on eating foods sourced primarily from plants such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and beans. Animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy are stricken from this eating style.
- Vegetarians: This is similar to a vegan diet, and while the meat is excluded, other animal products are allowed.
- Flexitarians: This style of eating includes mostly plant-based foods while allowing meat and other animal products in moderation.
Additionally, plant-based eating styles have many health benefits, as they can help with weight management, lower blood sugar levels, and protect against certain cancers [6,7,8].
Components of a heart-healthy diet
Studies indicate that those who follow a plant-based diet have a 75% reduced chance of developing high blood pressure, and a 43% less chance of dying from heart disease [4,5]. But what exactly constitutes a heart-healthy diet, and why does plant-based eating seem to reign supreme for your ticker? Let’s see what science has to say.
- Fiber. Fiber is an essential nutrient found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and plays an important role in heart health as it is associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, lowered cholesterol, and reduced blood pressure . Interestingly, research has found that people who consumed at least 200 g of fruits and vegetables per day experienced a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease when compared to those who didn’t eat as much produce .
- Healthy fats. Saturated fats are predominantly found in animal products (like red meat and dairy products), and since they are suggested to be the main contributor to unhealthy cholesterol levels and heart disease, studies have shown those who eat a diet high in unsaturated fats experience a reduction in cardiovascular disease and lower LDL levels compared to those who eat more trans- and saturated fats . Some examples of healthy fats include fatty fish, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
- Reduced sodium. By nature, plant-based diets tend to be lower in sodium than other eating styles, which contributes to a reduced risk of heart disease and lowered blood pressure.
TIP: From collard greens to chia seeds, here are the best foods that you, as a nutrition professional, can add to your clients’ diet for optimal heart health benefits.
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Not all plant-based foods are created equal
While plant-based diets have a plethora of benefits, simply cutting out meat or dairy products from an already poor diet is not going to improve overall health.
Foods like chips, cookies, processed foods, cereals, pre-packaged pastries, sauces, fast food options, and even dairy alternatives can be made “vegan”, yet they often contain a high amount of sodium, added sugar, and trans-fats, all of which can contribute to negative health outcomes .
While these options may be convenient for the occasional quick meal or snack, you can encourage your client to fill their diet with more whole foods and limit their consumption of these types of processed foods.
How to encourage plant-based eating to promote heart health
Whether your client is wanting to take the plunge into a vegan diet or is just looking to cut back on animal products, here are some ways you can encourage plant-based eating for optimal heart health.
- Focus on fiber. It’s recommended to consume 25-30 grams of fiber each day for optimal health. You can help your clients achieve this with 3 servings of whole grains and 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, which can be tracked with a customized meal plan.
- Limit added sugars. Added sugars offer little to no nutritional value, which is why the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6% of calories per day .
TIP: Check out this article to learn how you can help your clients break up with refined sugar.
- Out of sight, out of mind. This saying holds true for many reasons, especially when it comes to food. Encourage your clients to purchase nutritious, heart-healthy foods and to keep them in high-traffic, easy-to-spot areas around the kitchen. This way, when the munchies hit, they can reach for healthful alternatives instead of the cookie jar.
- Provide alternative swaps. With so many options at the grocery store, your clients may find it helpful to have nutritious swaps for their favorite processed foods. For instance, homemade granola is a good alternative to vegan cereals, and air-fried seasoned zucchini slices can satisfy a crunch craving for chips.
- Snack smarter. Encourage your clients to reach for fresh, convenient, easy-to-grab options (like grape tomatoes, baby carrots, apples, bananas, or nuts) instead of processed alternatives.
Plant-based diets (like vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diets) have been shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol, aid with weight management, lower blood sugar levels, and protect against certain cancers. However, not all plant-based foods are created equal, as “vegan” options like chips, cookies, processed foods, cereals, pre-packaged pastries, sauces, fast food options, and even dairy alternatives often contain a high amount of sodium, added sugar, and trans-fats. By encouraging your nutrition clients to boost their fiber intake, lower their added sugar consumption, choose more whole foods, and consciously make more nutritious choices, you can help promote heart health while on a plant-based diet.
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- The Balance Between Plant and Animal Foods - Today's Dietitian Magazine. Todaysdietitian.com. (2019).
- Dinu, M., Pagliai, G., & Sofi, F. (2017). A Heart-Healthy Diet: Recent Insights and Practical Recommendations. Current Cardiology Reports, 19(10).
- Pierre-Louis, K. (2021). Plant-based diets aren't always healthy. Popular Science.
- Le, L. T., & Sabaté, J. (2014). Beyond meatless, the health effects of vegan diets: findings from the Adventist cohorts. Nutrients, 6(6), 2131–2147.
- Alexander, S., Ostfeld, R. J., Allen, K., & Williams, K. A. (2017). A plant-based diet and hypertension. Journal of geriatric cardiology: JGC, 14(5), 327–330.
- Turner-McGrievy, G., Mandes, T., & Crimarco, A. (2017). A plant-based diet for overweight and obesity prevention and treatment. Journal of geriatric cardiology: JGC, 14(5), 369–374.
- McMacken, M., & Shah, S. (2017). A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. Journal of geriatric cardiology: JGC, 14(5), 342–354.
- Dinu, M., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., Casini, A., & Sofi, F. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 57(17), 3640–3649.
- Added sugars. http://www.heart.org. (2021, November 2). Retrieved June 27, 2022.