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The power of a plant-based diet for heart health

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 30, 2021.

Can you really improve your heart health by eating more plant-based foods? Research says yes. Resoundingly. So maybe it's time to start looking at all that colorful produce piled in bins at your local store as delicious medicine for your heart.

Investigators have studied the relationship between plant-based food intake and various ailments in many, many studies. Spoiler alert: Eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains wins. These are just a few key research findings:

  • High cholesterol. Reviewing 11 different studies, researchers concluded that plant-based diets helped people significantly improve both their cholesterol level and weight.
  • High blood pressure. In another study, people who ate more fruit had a lower risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure). In particular, eating blueberries, apples, pears, raisins and grapes all had a beneficial impact on blood pressure.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Researchers compiled the findings of 95 different studies and concluded: Eating more fruits and vegetables daily reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Apples, pears, citrus fruits and leafy greens all helped heart health.
  • Chronic heart disease. One large study found that people who ate more vegetables had a smaller risk of chronic heart disease; in fact, the more veggies they ate, the more their risk went down.

Your heart-health action plan

Switching up a carb, sugar and protein-heavy diet to one that's rich in plant-based foods takes initiative and planning. But resolving to do better for your heart is a great first step.

"Most of us don't eat enough plant food, which is so important for heart health," says Jason Ewoldt, R.D.N.,L.D., a wellness dietitian at Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program. And, in a plant-based diet, Ewoldt says, you can eat virtually unlimited amounts of fresh or frozen fruits and veggies. Whole grains, legumes (beans), healthy oils, seeds and nuts round out a plant-based diet.

Ewoldt offers some pro tips to help you get your diet on the right track for heart health.

  1. Don't set yourself up for failure. Determined to eat more plant-based foods? Great. But rushing to the store with good intentions isn't the answer. All that produce you load into your cart will probably be spoiling in your fridge a week later.
  2. Make a weekly meal plan, then shop. Your plan should include incremental change. If you eat only, say, a vegetable with dinner, begin by adding a second serving — how about fruit with breakfast? Once you've established that routine, add a third serving, maybe a salad at lunch. If you make the plan, you're more likely to stick to it.
  3. Get creative with prep. Steam, broil, roast, blend, saute: It's chef's choice here. So mix up a smoothie, simmer some soup or toss a salad — it all counts.
  4. Use the stealth approach. Sneak extra veggies into salads, soups and casseroles; add berries and other fruit to whole-grain breakfast cereals, salads and snacks. You'll improve your health and you won't even know it.

Your resolve matters. Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans. So why not use the natural preventive power of plant-based foods to protect your heart from hurt?

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