As more people are advised to shun meat, a new study from Australia adds to evidence that a vegetarian diet can help improve heart health.
A review of 20 prior investigations found that folks who followed a vegetarian diet for six months, on average, saw improvements in cholesterol, blood sugar and body weight.
The study analysis “provides support to the current knowledge that eating more plant foods, fewer animal foods or lean, low-fat animal foods is a supporter of health,” says Connie Diekman, a food and nutrition consultant and former president of the U.S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Overall, the researchers determined that compared with following a meat-inclusive diet, consuming a vegetarian diet had a “modest but significant effect” in helping keep cholesterol, blood sugar and body weight in check. However, no statistically significant impact on blood pressure control was observed.
How do vegetarian diets help the heart?
“High-risk patients need to do everything they can, as sometime medications are not enough,” says Lona Sandon, program director of clinical nutrition with the School of Health Professions at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “Eating a diet higher in plant foods is part of the puzzle.
“Plant foods help keep arteries clean and flexible. Compounds such as flavan-3-ols — found in foods such as berries, tea and cocoa — help keep the cells of the arteries healthy and functioning normally,” Sandon adds.
What’s more, “there is little to no risk of adding more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and healthy oils to your daily diet,” she stresses. “The fiber and phytonutrients that come along with a plant-focused diet aid in gut health and heart health.”
Noting heart disease is “the No. 1 killer of people worldwide,” she says that “evidence continues to show that the nutrient package of plant foods, and their diverse phytonutrient content, are positive supporters of heart health.”
In addition, Diekman says, plant foods contain less saturated fat, which can increase LDL-C, the bad cholesterol, thus making limitation of animal foods, and a focus on more plant foods, a positive step to reduce the potential risk of heart disease.
“As a registered dietitian,” she adds, “my guidance to my clients is to develop an eating plan that is