Senior Dietitian, British Heart Foundation
Eating a plant-based diet has never been so trendy, and it’s not just a passing craze. Meat-free options now line supermarket shelves – but how good are they for your heart?
Estimates vary, but as many as one in three UK adults eats a plant-based diet some or all of the time (1). Growing concern for animal welfare and the environment is partly behind this boom, but it’s also due to the lifestyle’s links to numerous health benefits, including a lower risk of heart and circulatory diseases.
Many people assume you must become vegan to adopt a plant-based lifestyle, but this isn’t the case. In fact, there are several other plant-based diets that can help keep our hearts healthy.
Growing evidence suggests that the health benefits of these diets come from a focus on eating plenty of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds (2), with smaller portions of lean meat, fish and dairy.
Not all plant-based diets are healthy
However, it’s a myth that all plant-based diets are healthy. Like any diet, the quality of what you eat is important, and won’t make up for any other harmful lifestyle factors, such as smoking, not exercising enough or drinking too much alcohol.
Eating well can help to lower your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. Meanwhile, an unbalanced, plant-based diet full of sugary drinks, chips, cake and biscuits is unlikely to keep your heart healthy (3).
We could all benefit from eating more fruit and vegetables and less meat but, as these examples show, a plant-based diet doesn’t need to be restrictive.
A Mediterranean diet only includes small amounts of meat
The Mediterranean diet is made up of fruit and vegetables, legumes, fish and whole grains with only small amounts of meat. Fats are mainly unsaturated and come from foods like olive oil, oily fish and nuts.
The Mediterranean diet as a whole can reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke, so focus on a well-balanced variety instead of specific foods or nutrients (4).
Limiting red meat, sugar and salt with the DASH diet
The DASH diet encourages you to eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, with some dairy, fish and poultry. Meanwhile, red meat, sweets and sweetened drinks are limited, and salt is restricted to under 6g a day – the UK’s maximum recommended intake.
Research has shown that this diet can help to lower your blood pressure, which decreases your risk of heart disease (5).
Eatwell Guide limits fat, sugar and salt
The Government’s Eatwell Guide sets out the UK’s dietary guidelines on healthy eating (6). It tells us what amounts of each food groups we should be eating, and the type of foods that can make up a balanced diet.
The guide recommends similar foods to the above two diets. Dairy, meat, and fish can also be included, or swapped for plant-based alternatives, while foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar are limited.
Vegan diet eliminates all animal produce
Many meat-eaters could benefit from eating vegan meals now and then, as it could help you cut down on high-fat dairy products, red meat, and processed foods.
A well-balanced vegan diet is healthy, but also a serious undertaking due to the range of foods that are excluded. If you adopt this diet, you will need to plan carefully to avoid missing out on essential nutrients. Do your research first.
1) Waitrose&Partners Food and Drink Report | 2) Parker T, Taylor V et al. Cardioprotective whole diet advice in cardiac rehabilitation. British Journal of Cardiac Nursing. 2018. | 3) Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, SpiegelmanD et al. Healthful and unhealthful plant-based diets and the risk of coronary heart disease in U.S. Adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017 | 4) Sofi F, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A. Accruing evidence on benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet on health: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010. | 5) Sacks FM, Svetkey LP, Vollmer WM, Appel LJ et al. DASH-Sodium Collaborative Research Group. Effects on blood pressure of reduced dietary sodium and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. N Engl J Med. 2001. 6) Public Health England. 2017.