Former President Bill Clinton is no stranger to heart disease. In 2004 he had quadruple bypass surgery to repair the damaged arteries in his heart. But it wasn't until 2010—after suffering chest pains that led to the placement of two coronary stents—that he decided to convert to a vegan lifestyle.
In an interview with AARP magazine, Clinton claimed this dietary change helped him lose 30 pounds, improved his overall energy level, and ultimately extended his life. Unfortunately diabetes and heart disease are closely related. In fact, having diabetes doubles your risk of heart attack or stroke so steps taken to to better your heart health are good for blood glucose control, too.
Although it may seem extreme to some, a plant-based diet has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and improve outcomes for those with a history of cardiac disease. Many studies have found a relationship with a diet rich in plant based foods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts, and whole grains to be associated with a significantly lower risk of coronary artery disease and stroke .
Although you don’t need to become a vegan to fight against heart disease, adding more plant-based foods into your meal plan can help in the battle to maintain a healthy heart. The Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals' Follow-Up Study found an increased intake of fruits and vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables and vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables, appears to have a protective effect against coronary heart disease.
To gain these benefits, try filling your plate halfway with vegetables and fruits at each meal. At breakfast, this could be as simple as topping your cereal or yogurt with berries or adding sautéed vegetables into an omelet. At lunch, add dark, leafy greens such as spinach into a wrap or include as a side salad. For dinner, avoid making protein the main attraction on your plate. Toss lettuce, carrots, and tomato for a vitamin C rich salad, enjoy a steamed sweet potato packed full of antioxidants, and snack on fresh fruit for dessert. In all of these meals, you can still add in lean animal protein if desired, but the addition of fruits and vegetables may help to decrease your odds of developing cardiovascular disease.
Even if you enjoy animal-based foods, it can still be beneficial to go ‘meatless’ once in a while. Choose one day a week to declare your meatless day, such as partaking in the ‘Meatless Monday’ campaign and focus on meeting your daily protein needs through only plant based sources. If you are new to eating plant-based proteins, this may sound challenging, but it can really be quite simple. Nuts and seeds, beans, lentils, quinoa, edamame, peas, and even many whole grains and vegetables are surprisingly high in protein. Include a good source of plant-based protein at each meal and snack to help you meet your daily needs while helping to regulate both your appetite and blood glucose levels.
Add Some Fat for Satiety
As you incorporate more plant-based foods into your meal plan to gain the heart health benefits, don’t forget about the fat. Plant-based fats, such as those found in olive oil, avocado, and nuts, offer many benefits to cardiac health. For instance, one study found that women who consumed five ounces of nuts per week had a significantly lower risk of coronary heart disease than those who ate few nuts.
If the higher calorie content of a food like nuts has you hesitating to increase them in your diet, you can take comfort in knowing that plant-based fats such as nuts have been linked with a reduction in body weight. In fact, one long-term study found that individuals who followed a weight loss plan rich in dietary fat lost more weight and kept it off longer than those who followed a low fat, carbohydrate-rich meal plan. Your total calorie intake still plays a role in long-term weight loss and management, however thanks to the high satiety value of dietary fats, adding in foods such as nuts and seeds may help you to achieve a healthier body weight as opposed to following a low fat diet.
When it comes to boosting your overall heart health, don’t focus so much on what you need to take out of your diet, but instead focus on increasing the foods that have been found to improve cardiac health. By focusing on eating a large variety of fruits and vegetables and incorporating plant-based fats, proteins, and whole grains into each meal, you will naturally decrease your intake of added sugars and high fat animal proteins, which may help to improve your long-term health while promoting a healthy body weight.