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Plant-Based Diet Quality Key to Reducing Heart Disease

Basil, olive oil, tomatoes

(Conger Design, Pixabay)

18 July 2017. A review of health surveys going back to the 1980s reveals individuals consuming healthier plant-based diets are less likely to encounter heart disease than people eating less-healthy foods from plants or animals. The findings from the analysis appear online in yesterday’s issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (paid subscription required).

A team led by postdoctoral researcher Ambika Satija at Harvard University’s school of public health sought to find evidence of beneficial effects from a diet of plant-based food with more whole grains and fresh produce, compared to diets with refined grains, potatoes, and sweetened drinks also derived from plants. In this paper, the researchers looked specifically for associations between quality of plant-based diets and heart disease.

The team created a numerical index where healthier foods derived from plants — whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes, oils, tea and coffee — received positive scores, while less healthy foods derived from plants and animals received negative ratings. The researchers also devised an unhealthy plant-based food index, where refined grains, potatoes, sweetened desserts, and sugary drinks received positive scores and healthier foods derived from plants received negative scores.

Satija and colleagues applied their indexes to data from surveys of people working in health care. The surveys — Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study 2, and Health Professionals Follow-up Study — are administered to volunteers in the health professions going back to the 1970s. Participants in the surveys answer comprehensive health questions, then take follow-up inquiries every 2 years including items on lifestyle, health behaviors, and medical history. The team sampled between 43,000 to more than 92,000 records from each of the 3 surveys, beginning in the mid-1980s, who at the beginning were free of chronic diseases.

The samples represent more than 4.8 million person-years in the follow-up surveys. Those results uncovered 8,631 cases of coronary heart disease, a common heart disorder, where waxy plaques build up in blood vessels including the coronary arteries feeding heart muscles. The plaques narrow the arteries and can break away causing blood clots that slow or stop the flow of blood to the heart. The condition can lead to heart failure or heart rhythm problems.

The researchers found people in the surveys eating a healthier plant-based diet were less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease, while people consuming less-healthy food from plants were more likely to encounter heart disease. While the findings indicate an association and not necessarily a direct cause, the authors note that the correlation between a healthy plant-based diet and the absence of coronary heart disease is particularly strong.

An accompanying editorial in the same journal issue, published by American College of Cardiology, says that not all plant-based diets are equally healthy and but plant-based diets with whole grains, unsaturated fats and plenty of fruits and vegetables deserve more dietary recommendations.

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