Food and Nutrition

Turns Out Plant-Based Eating Is Linked to Longevity and Heart Health Even More Than We Thought, According to New Research

Emily Laurence

Photo: Stocksy/Jovo Jovanovic
There's no denying that plant-based eating is finally taking the nation by storm. (It seems like forever ago that the ketogenic diet and Paleo dominated every food convo, right?) Of course, just because something is popular certainly doesn't mean it's worth adopting. But this is one instance where doing so will benefit your health tremendously.

There's already plenty of scientific evidence showing how plant-based eating directly benefits both short- and long-term health. (It's a win for the environment, too.) But the confirmation just keeps coming. This month, not one but two new studies solidified the link between a plant-based diet and heart health as well as longevity.

Both published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the first study, titled "A Plant-Centered Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease during Young to Middle Adulthood" took into account data from 4,946 people spanning from 1986 to 2016. Researchers found that plant-based eating was directly linked to a lowered risk of heart disease—which happens to be the number one cause of death in the U.S.

The second study focused specifically on postmenopausal women. Participants followed the portfolio diet, an eating plan that emphasizes plant proteins, soluble fiber, fruit, and monounsaturated fats. Similarly to the other study, researchers found that this way of eating was linked to better heart health. Together, these studies show that plant-based eating can benefit someone no matter what age they are. Keep reading to learn more about the studies straight from the researchers and see how you can apply the intel to your own life.

Inside the link between a plant-based diet and heart health and longevity

Plant-based eating may be a central topic of conversation now, but back in 1986 when researchers of the first study started collecting data, it certainly wasn't the movement it is today. David Jacobs, PhD, one of the study authors, explains that the goal of the study was to see if there was a connection between a diet that centered on plant-based foods and lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

The participants' diets were evaluated over the course of 30 years using a scoring system consisting of 46 different food groups. The food groups were divided into subgroups based on their known links to heart disease. These subgroups included 'beneficial' foods (like fruit, veggies, beans, nuts, and whole grains), 'adverse' foods (including fried food, red meat, and processed foods), and 'neutral' foods (like non-fried potatoes, refined grains, lean meats, and shellfish). Participants had eight exams over the course of the 30 years that included lab tests, physical measurements, medical histories, and assessment of lifestyle factors. The results show a strong link: People who most ate nutritionally-rich plant foods and fewer animal products had a 52 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to those who didn't have a diet where nutrient-rich plant foods were the focus.

Variety is an imperative part of eating for heart health

There is one more particularly interesting result to note. While nutritionally-rich plant foods were the major driver to a high score, some animal products also contributed, such as fish, chicken, and dairy. This indicates that it isn't necessary to give up animal products completely in order to eat with heart health in mind. Dr. Jacobs also emphasizes that there wasn't one food in particular that was linked to a lowered risk of heart disease. "What we found is that you have to eat a variety of [nutrient-dense] foods," he says.

The study on the portfolio diet started collecting data in 1993—again, long before plant-based eating was a term we were saying on the reg. Andrea Glenn MSc, RD, one of the study authors, says there was already scientific evidence connecting the portfolio diet to lower blood pressure levels and less inflammation. "But we didn’t know if the effects would translate into lower cardiovascular disease events, like heart attacks and stroke," she says.

What is the portfolio diet, exactly?

If you've never heard of the portfolio diet, it's an eating plan that was first developed in the early 2000s at the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital. "It is a 'portfolio' of cholesterol-lowering foods including plant protein, nuts, [soluble] fiber sources such as oats, barley, psyllium, eggplant, okra, and some fruits, and plant oils, such as canola, sunflower, avocado, or extra virgin olive oil," Glenn explains. As you can see, it's pretty synonymous with plant-based eating. Though this study focused specifically on postmenopausal women, the results echoed that of the other study: A diet high in plant-based foods was linked to an 11 percent less likelihood of developing heart disease.

How to apply this intel to your own life

Both studies offer up great news, which is that you have the power to take control of your heart health through what you eat. When asked what advice he has for people who want to apply the study findings to their life, Dr. Jacobs's tip is simple: Eat a wide variety of nutrient-rich plants. And if you want to keep fish, lean meat, and dairy in your life too, go for it.

As a registered dietitian, Glenn recognizes that people who are used to meat being the center of every meal may find switching to a plant-based diet intimidating. Her advice is to start small, making changes in increments instead of completely changing the way you eat at once. "For example, you could start with having oatmeal with nuts and berries for breakfast or adding tofu to your dinner one or two times a week," she says. "The great thing about the portfolio diet is that we know that even small additions of the food items can make a difference, and the more items you add, the likely the greater benefits you will see with your heart health."

It's never too late to start, too. Something that Dr. Jacobs and his fellow researchers saw in their findings was that regardless of how people ate earlier in life, improving their diet had a 61 percent lower risk of subsequent cardiovascular disease at the 20-year check-up compared to people whose diets got less nutrient-rich. So whether you're 28 or 88, tweaking your diet to make nutrient-rich plants the star is worth it as far as your health is concerned.

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