Photo: Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

by By Tandis Bishop RD and updated by Sabra Rebo, RD.

Time and again we see news reports on studies that remind us of the health benefits of a plant-based diet in reversing coronary heart disease (CHD). In 2010, a study was published in the World Health Organization’s weekly journal, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. According to the study, nearly 400,000 people were expected to die of coronary heart disease in the United States in 2010.1

Unfortunately since 2010, the number of deaths from heart disease has increased. Data released in 2016 from the Centers for Disease Control show that the number of deaths from heart disease is now around 630,000 Americans every year2. “Half of these deaths could be avoided if people ate healthier food and stopped smoking,” says the study’s co-author, Dr. Simon Capewell, from the University of Liverpool in England.

The research calculated the number of deaths based on lifestyle trends from the baseline year 2000. Over the past few decades there have been improvements in cardiovascular health due to reductions in cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking, and increased physical activity. However, since 1990, these improvements have been hindered due to a striking rise in obesity, associated diabetes and high blood pressure in women.

"By avoiding tobacco, eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular physical activity, people can dramatically reduce their risk of developing heart disease, stroke or diabetes," says Dr. Shanthi Mendis, coordinator of Chronic Diseases Prevention and Management at the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the WHO in 2016 more than 1.9 billion adults aged 18 or older are overweight. Of these individuals, 650 million are obese3

In August of 2017 another study on this issue was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This large study focused on body mass index (a measure of body fat) and cardiometabolic disease. The researchers found that “excess weight carries substantially increased risk of CHD, both alone and in combination with hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, or diabetes, in both men and women …”4

Both studies basically say that it’s hard to fight heart disease because of the increasing obesity epidemic. Obesity has associated health problems such as high blood pressure and blood glucose, both of which are also heart disease factors. As part of the fight against heart disease as the #1 killer, we also need to fight the #1 epidemic: obesity.

One option is rather simple, actually. Leading health experts agree that eating a diet high in plant foods is the best way to nourish ourselves and our families. A plant-based diet is rich in foods from plant sources such as whole grains, beans, lentils and other legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. It does not include animal products such as meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, and sometimes dairy. Healthy plant-based diets can help support a lifetime of good health and provide protection against numerous diseases, including our country’s three biggest killers: heart disease, cancer, and strokes.

The American Dietetic Association states that vegetarians have “lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; ... lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer” and that vegetarians are less likely than non-vegetarians to be obese.5 Well-planned plant-based diets provide us with all the nutrients that we need, minus all the saturated fat, cholesterol, and contaminants found in animal flesh and eggs.

Research has shown that vegetarians are up to 68% percent less likely to die from heart disease and they have a decreased overall cancer rate compared to meat-eaters. Plus, vegans and vegetarians had a 2-4 point lower BMI compared to meat eaters .6

A wholesome, low-fat plant-based diet is ideal for facilitating weight loss, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing the risk for heart disease. This is because a plant-based diet is naturally low in fat, high in fiber, and high in fruits and vegetables. Of course, some people can be vegetarians but still eat high-fat, low-fiber foods like French fries and cheese pizza. It is important to limit eating those foods to only occasional consumption.

One should make a daily habit of eating whole grains (brown rice, oats, stone ground whole wheat or sprouted wheat, quinoa, barley, etc), vegetables and fruits (5-9 servings/day), nuts, legumes, and moderate amounts of low-fat dairy products (such as yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, and low-fat or non-fat milk). Of course it makes sense to include other good health habits such as not smoking and regular physical activity.

The AHA website does a really good job of providing information about a vegetarian diet and how it helps reduce health risks. The site also provides great information to explain why vegetarian diets provide sufficient protein to maintain good health. See their page, “Vegetarian Diets”.

At the end of the day, the single most important thing an individual can do for their health, the environment, and the sake of innocent animals is to adopt a vegetarian diet.

  1. Capewell, Simon et. Al, “Cardiovascular risk factor trends and potential for reducing coronary heart disease mortality in the United States of America Bull World Health Organ 2010;88:120–130.
  2. “Heart Disease Fact Sheet”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 18 January 2018.
  3.  “Obesity and Overweight”. World Health Organization. 17 January 2018.
  4. “Association of Body Mass Index With Cardiometabolic Disease in the UK Biobank”. The JAMA Network. JAMA Cardiology. Accessed 18 January 2018.
  5. Ann Mangels, Virginia Messina, and Vesanto Melina, "Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian Diets," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Jun. 2003, pp. 748-65.
  6. “Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts”.  NCBI. Accessed 22 January 2018.