5 Heart-Healthy Benefits of Plant-Based Diets

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When it comes to heart health, plants are superior

With February fast approaching, it’s hard to get away from Valentine’s Day.  There are reminders everywhere from flowers and jewelry to chocolates and a plethora of heart-shaped candies.  After a while, you can’t help but have hearts on the brain.Valentine Box by plattmonk

Instead of rushing off to buy everyone you know the most expensive gift possible to show how much you really truly love them (Valentine’s Day cynicism?  Me?  Not at all!), why not whip up some plant-based dishes and invite your friends over for a delicious  alternative celebration that just so happens to promote heart health?

More and more research is emerging to show the benefits of plant-based diets, including how they support a healthy heart.  These are just five of the perks you get when you stop eating animal products and processed foods and focus on whole, fresh ingredients from plant sources.

Lower Blood Pressure

Carrying around extra weight is a known risk factor for heart disease.  Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is just one of the associated symptoms.  Many people who switch to a plant-based diet experience natural weight loss that brings their bodies to a healthy weight that is easier to maintain.  This eases the strain on the cardiovascular system, bringing blood pressure numbers down without medication.

Eating whole plant foods also eliminates the refined sugars found in many processed foods.  As these sugars break down in the body, they create by-products including uric acid.  This compound inhibits the release of nitric oxide gas (Bauman, 2010) which, as you’ll see below, is essential for healthy circulation.

The high levels of potassium found in many plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, balances sodium in the body to help control fluid levels (Salazar, 2014).  When fluids are out of balance, the body tends to retain water in an attempt to remedy the situation, which in turn drives blood pressure up (Bauman, 2010).  Since plants are also low in naturally occurring sodium, you get the added bonus of a lower salt intake, also known to help control hypertension.

Lower Cholesterol

fruit and veggie bowlIt’s no secret that high cholesterol and heart disease often go hand in hand.  Fiber, especially a particular type called hemicellulose that’s found in foods such as oat bran, blocks the absorption of cholesterol by binding with it in the intestines.  Fiber is also the preferred food of beneficial intestinal bacteria, so the more fiber your have, the higher the number of bacteria.  As they feed on the fiber, short-chain fatty acids are released.  Some of these travel to the liver where they actually inhibit the creation of cholesterol (Murray, 2005).

Plant-based diets are naturally high in fiber while animal foods have none and processed foods contain very little unless it’s added during manufacturing.  In addition, plants don’t contribute extra cholesterol to your diet.  What this all means is that your wind up with a cholesterol that’s at a healthy level without drugs and all their possible side effects.

A word of caution: if you’re switching from a low-fiber diet to a high-fiber one, take it slow.  Consuming too much extra fiber too soon can cause cramping, bloating and constipation.

Improved Circulation

Remember nitric acid?  Its job is to help blood vessels dilate and to keep blood flowing (Deardorff, 2013)–in essence, to make sure that the insides of your arteries aren’t “sticky.”  Sticky surfaces encourage cholesterol deposits which set the stage for plaques to form, narrowing vessels and increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.  Oil is particularly insidious as it causes the cells lining blood vessels, the endothelial cells, to stiffen for several hours after consumption, reducing their ability to produce nitric oxide and encouraging more plaquing over time.

Plant-based diets have the power to restore flow to partially blocked arteries (Esselstyn, 2014).  Open vessels mean that the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to get blood where it needs to go, another factor which aids in reducing blood pressure (Bauman, 2010). This puts less strain on the heart so it can pump efficiently for more years.

Cleaner Arteries

Doctors including Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr. and Dean Ornish have shown that plant-based diets don’t just improve heart heath–they can actually reverse established heart disease (Esselstyn, 2014; Ornish, 1998).  Using low-fat diets without any animal products, processed foods or, in Esselstyn’s case, added oils, these doctors were able to reduce cholesterol numbers along with the frequency of cardiac events such as angina and even clear out arterial plaques.  In some cases, plaques diminished or disappeared within weeks of making dietary changes (Esselstyn, 2014).

Reduced Oxidation

Oxidation occurs naturally in the body every day, but this process can also be encouraged by eating certain foods including transheart health fasts and artificial food additives.  These substances create free radicals, unstable molecules that circulate through the body, causing damage to healthy cells.  The resulting oxidative stress contributes to inflammation (Bauman, 2010), yet another factor considered to be a precursor to heart disease.

Free radicals are responsible for creating oxidized cholesterol that sticks to arterial walls more easily (Bauman, 2010).  When these dense, damaged particles take hold, the immune system reacts, attempting to block further damage with a proliferation of cells that eventually becomes an plaque.

Fortunately, eating more plant foods is a great way to get a steady supply of antioxidants–powerful free radical fighters that stop oxidative damage in its tracks.  Look for fruits and vegetables with bright or deep colors to get the most antioxidant bang for your buck (Bauman, 2010)

So whether or not you’re into Valentine’s Day, it’s clear that adopting a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do to keep your heart healthy.

Have you seen an improvement in heart health since going vegan?  What did/does your doctor think?


 

References:
Deardorff, J. (2013, January 30). Heart health: Can a plant-based diet cure heart disease? The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-01-30/health/sc-health-0130-heart-diet-20130130_1_nitric-oxide-heart-disease-heart-health

Bauman, E. (2010). NC 208.1 Cardiovascular health: Introduction, statistics & causes, the sterol family. Retrieved from Bauman College: http://dashboard.baumancollege.org/mod/resource/view.php?id=1938

Salazar, T. R. (2014, August 30) How a plant-based diet can reduce hypertension and prevent stroke. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved from http://business.inquirer.net/177644/how-a-plant-based-diet-can-reduce-hypertension-and-prevent-stroke

Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Simon and Schuster

Esselstyn, C.B., Jr., Gendy, G., Doyle, J., Golubic, M., and Roisen, M. F. (2014, July). A way to reverse CAD? The Journal of Family Practice. 36(7):356-364b. Retrieved from http://dresselstyn.com/JFP_06307_Article1.pdf

Ornish, D., Scherwitz, L. W., Billings, J. H., Gould, K. L., Merritt, T. A., Sparler, S…Brand, R.J. (1998, December 16). Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA. 208(23):2001-2007. Retrieved from http://www.ornishspectrum.com/wp-content/uploads/Intensive-lifestyle-changes-for-reversal-of-coronary-heart-disease1.pdf

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About the Author:

Sam has been a vegan since summer of 2009 and has spent the subsequent years experimenting with all manner of vegan food. She holds a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a graduate of the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant Program. She is a member of Toastmasters International and currently serves as part of the Capital View Toastmasters club. When she's not blogging or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, play silly card games and knit socks.
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