The research, which was recently published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, examined data from 27,911 U.S. adults, and discovered that those who ate plant-based meals at dinner had a significantly lower risk of heart disease when compared to those who ate refined carbs and meat in the evenings. This was true even if those who abstained from meat and refined carbs at night ate them at other times of day.
"Meal timing along with food quality are important factors to consider when looking for ways to lower your risk of heart disease," explained study author Ying Li of the Harbin Medical University in Harbin, China, in a press release. The study revealed that people who ate plant-based dinner with more whole carbs and unsaturated fats experienced the greatest reductions in heart disease.
This finding is noteworthy, says Dana Hunnes, PhD, RD, senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and author of the upcoming book Recipe For Survival, even to someone like herself, a longtime proponent of plant-based eating as a means for reducing the risk of chronic disease. "The fact that they found a direct, 10-percent decrease in risk for heart disease with a plant-based meal at night is really quite astounding," she says. "This has the power to prevent millions of deaths every year."
The study didn't investigate why, exactly, it matters what time of day you consume your plants—what the reason is that it may be healthier to eat bacon in the morning than it is to eat steak at night, for example—but Dr. Hunnes has a few theories.
For starers, she says, eating whole-foods, plant-based meals improves endothelial function of the blood vessels, which means they will be open wider with lower blood pressure. "This is because plant-based foods are high in fiber, low in saturated fat, have higher nitrous oxide availability—this relaxes blood vessels and can help lower blood pressure and improve performance—and are high in phytonutrients and antioxidants, all of which are beneficial for heart health and for moving deleterious-to-health plaques out of the blood vessels," she says.
And allowing your body a break from digesting the saturated fat in animal products while it's inactive at night may also contribute to reduced risk of heart disease. "You're providing healthier nutrients and substrates for your heart and blood vessels while sleeping," Dr. Hunnes points out.
While this new finding doesn't change her go-to dietary advice, it does bolster it. "As always, my recommendation is to reduce if not completely eliminate your consumption of meat for better health, disease prevention, and even disease reversal," she says. "You are what you eat, and plant-based foods, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fiber, are all beneficial for you." Especially, it seems, at night.
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