The Best Foods for Heart Health

plant-based diet benefits Jul 10, 2022
Hands holding a heart

A Silent Killer?

In just these last 3 years, I've experienced the loss of at least 9 family members and friends. The majority of these were from health issues like cancer and sudden heart attacks, but 4 out of 9 of these were from heart issues. The thing with heart disease is that often you don’t realize there is a problem until the symptoms occur or when that sudden heart attack strikes.

Take Garret* for example, who was 61 and passed away from a sudden massive heart attack in the middle of the night while sleeping next to his wife. Or my neighbor John* who was only 40. His heart stopped suddenly at home one Sunday after lunch, leaving behind his wife and 4 children. I can tell you many more such real-life stories and experiences. Perhaps you might be able to as well. In fact, even my own father suffered blocked arteries and needed an urgent stent placement a few years ago.


It's More Common Than You Think


These incidents are not that surprising though when you know that heart disease remains the leading killer in the United States, even despite COVID mortality statistics. In 2020 alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics reported that heart disease claimed 696,962 lives in the United States, with 350,831 reported deaths from COVID-19. Worldwide, a similar picture emerges. According to the World Health Organization, heart disease also ranks as the number 1 killer in the world. In 2019, coronary heart disease was responsible for 16% of the world’s total deaths, accounting for about one in 6 deaths worldwide. This is a staggering amount equivalent to 8.9 million deaths from ischemic heart disease alone…making heart disease a greater killer than even cancer!

At this point, you may ask, is there something we can do about this? The answer is yes!


How a Plant-Based Diet Can Reduce Your Heart Disease Risk


Recent research is adding to the mounting evidence of the impact of diets on heart disease. In one large prospective cohort study published in 2021, researchers studied 123,330 postmenopausal women as part of the Women’s Health Initiative Study, following them for an average of 15 years. These researchers found that higher adherence to the plant-based Portfolio Diet was associated with a 11% lower risk of total cardiovascular disease, 14% lower risk of coronary heart disease and 17% lower risk of heart failure.

But the benefits of eating patterns rich in whole plant-based foods on heart health are not limited to older adult populations. In another large-scale study published in 2021, 4,946 young adults between 18 - 30 years of age were followed for 32 years, and their intake tracked through periodic interview-administered diet history questionnaires. In this prospective cohort study, researchers found that not only is eating a nutritionally rich plantā€centered diet associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, changing to a plant-focused diet since young adulthood is also associated with a lower subsequent risk of heart disease in middle age. That’s good news, isn’t it?


Healthy Foods for the Heart

 
So what are the foods most beneficial for heart health? These would be unprocessed or minimally processed whole plant-based foods. Here below are the main categories of whole plant-based foods to focus on, with a few examples given in each category. I hope this gives you a glimpse of the wide variety of foods you can enjoy on a whole food, plant-based diet! 

  • Whole Grains: quinoa, millet, buckwheat, brown rice, bulgur, wild rice, black rice, amaranth, barley
  • Legumes: White navy beans, lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, pinto beans
  • Green Leafy Vegetables: arugula, kale, bok choy, watercress, mustard spinach, spinach
  • Starchy Tuber Vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yam, taro, Jerusalem artichokes
  • Other Vegetables: Brussels sprouts, carrots, cucumbers, beets, bell peppers
  • Fruits: apples, oranges, pears, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries
  • Nuts & Seeds: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts
  • Mushrooms: white button mushrooms, Cremini mushrooms, Shiitake mushrooms, trumpet mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, enoki mushrooms


What You Eat Does Matter

Remember this – what you eat DOES matter. A person can be eating a plant-based or vegan diet but it will not be that heart-protective if it primarily consists of less healthy plant foods. These include high amounts of refined grains, fried vegan foods, ultra processed commercial vegan products, as well as commercially processed food products with a high oil or sugar content. Research that shows a protective effect of plant-based diets are generally those that involve the regular consumption of high quality, healthful plant foods centered around minimally processed or unprocessed whole plant-based foods.


The Takeaway

Heart disease does not just affect those in the much older age range. It can hit anyone in adulthood. It’s not enough to keep going the way you are, especially if you know deep down that your eating and lifestyle habits can improve.

It’s not enough to keep the ‘status quo’ and continue cooking or eating the way you have been. Your health and perhaps the health of those around you may be at stake and silently suffering. Even if you feel relatively ‘fine’ now, it may not mean you are at the best and fullest health you can be. 

So let's not take our current ‘good’ health for granted. Life is truly short. Reflect for a moment on how you want to live out the remainder of your days, then take action. There's so much we can do starting today to build better health and stronger hearts in ourselves and our loved ones! 

 

Sources:

  1. Leading Causes of Death. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed Jan 13 2022. Accessed July 2, 2022.
  2. The Top 10 Causes of Death. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death.  Accessed July 2, 2022.
  3. Eating a plant-based diet at any age may lower cardiovascular risk. American Heart Association News. Published August 4, 2021. Accessed July 2, 2022.
  4. Glenn AJ, Lo K, Jenkins DJA, Boucher BA, Hanley AJ, Kendall CWC, Manson JE, Vitolins MZ, Snetselaar LG, Liu S, Sievenpiper JL. Relationship Between a Plant-Based Dietary Portfolio and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Findings From the Women's Health Initiative Prospective Cohort Study. J Am Heart Assoc. 2021 Aug 17;10(16):e021515. Accessed July 2, 2022.
  5. Choi Y, Larson N, Steffen LM, Schreiner PJ, Gallaher DD, Duprez DA, Shikany JM, Rana JS, Jacobs DR Jr. Plant-Centered Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease During Young to Middle Adulthood. J Am Heart Assoc. 2021 Aug 17;10(16):e020718. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.120.020718. Epub 2021 Aug 4. Accessed July 2, 2022.

*Note: Names changed to protect privacy.