by Tandis Bishop, RDN, LD, CDE
February is American Heart Month, so it is fitting that we take a moment to consider the impact of heart disease on society and our personal health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “Nearly 800,000 Americans die each year from heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, accounting for one in every three deaths. Annually, about one in every six U.S. healthcare dollars is spent on cardiovascular disease. By 2030, annual direct medical costs associated with cardiovascular diseases are projected to rise to more than $818 billion, while lost productivity costs could exceed $275 billion.”1
This figure includes both direct and indirect costs of physicians and other professionals, hospital and nursing home services, the cost of medications, home health care and other medical durables. Indirect costs include lost productivity that results from illness and premature death. This is only the economic cost. The true cost in human terms of suffering and lost lives is incalculable. The truly sad part about all this is that it is not necessary.
Despite the misconception, cardiovascular disease is largely preventable. Diet and Lifestyle factors are the primary contributors to cardiovascular disease. Factors suchs as: Poor diet, physical inactivity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, overweight and obesity, smoking, and alcohol abuse.2
When it comes to heart disease, major scientific and medical institutions agree that consuming a meat-based diet (consisting of processed meats laden with preservatives) puts a person at greater risk. These institutions further agree that the risk is greatly reduced by adopting a healthy low-fat, high-fiber diet rich, in plant foods. This is best achieved by adopting a plant-based diet consisting of whole-food sources of whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts and seeds. In fact, vegetarians have been shown to have a significantly lower risk of dying of heart disease than non-vegetarians.3
This should not come as a big surprise because plant-based diets are naturally lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher in plant nutrients and fiber than most meat-based diets.
So why eat meat? Aside from tradition or taste, the main reason people eat meat is because they think it is necessary for them to get enough protein. Not only is this a myth, but plant-based proteins are actually a healthier choice because they:
- Have zero cholesterol. High cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for developing heart disease. Meat is high in LDL (bad cholesterol) and the more LDL you have in your bloodstream, the more likely plaque (atherosclerosis) will form in your arteries.
- Tend to be low in fat. Flesh foods are high in saturated fat which is the biggest contributor to blood clotting, which can result in heart disease and stroke. Whole plant foods, which are generally low in fat, including saturated fat, can help reduce blood cholesterol levels and the risk for heart disease.
- Are accompanied by fiber. Fiber not only promotes health, it has been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), therefore reducing the risk of heart disease.
In addition to fiber, plant-proteins are accompanied with healthy phytonutrients (plant nutrients), vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, prebiotics, probiotics and enzymes. What’s even more impressive is not only can a plant-based diet reduce your risk for heart disease, but world-renowned physician Dr. Dean Ornish found that patients on a low-fat vegetarian diet actually reversed coronary heart disease.4 So if you haven’t already done so, consider doing your heart some good this month, and begin the switch to a healthy plant-based diet.
Check out this month’s Health Tip on ways to eat more plant-based.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation. Heart Disease and Stroke Cost American Nearly $1 Billion a day in Medical Costs, Lost Productivity. April 29, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.cdcfoundation.org/pr/2015/heart-disease-and-stroke-cost-amer...
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Heart Disease. 2017 Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_heart_disease.htm
3 American Heart Association. Updated September 26, 2016. Retrieved from https://healthyforgood.heart.org/eat-smart/articles/vegetarian-vegan-and...
4 Ornish D, et. al. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA 1998; 280(23): 2001-2007. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/188274