Vegetarian Diets May Beat Chronic Heart Disease, New Study Finds

Lower bad cholesterol with a plateful of green.

Fresh Mediterranean fruits. illustration. view from above.
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We know plants do the body good. Regularly eating a plateful of fruits and veg slashes one’s risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and even depression. In the case of cardiovascular disease, there’s the possibility that a plant-based diet could reverse some if not all, the ravages of an unhealthy heart. Considering cardiovascular diseases like coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke are the leading cause of death, including in the US, it’s imperative to keep our tickers happy with a healthy, antioxidant-rich diet for as long as possible.

Now, in a study published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Network Open, researchers from Australia and Italy report that a vegetarian diet may help people with or at high risk for cardiovascular disease. Their findings were determined by analyzing data from twenty randomized clinical trials where participants were placed on vegetarian diets for either obesity, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. Being on these diets appeared to improve indicators of cardiovascular health like blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (or LDL-C), further emphasizing the benefit of a vegetarian (or vegan) lifestyle, especially for high-risk individuals.

Despite its known health benefits, it hasn’t been clear whether a plant-based diet is substantially effective for individuals with or at a high risk of developing cardiovascular disease. To get to an answer, the researchers combed through over 7,000 randomized clinical trials and identified 20 that involved adults within that particular patient population. In total, 1,878 participants were placed on vegetarian diets for different reasons — cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or obesity. On average, these individuals were between the ages of 28 to 64.

From the pooled clinical trial data, the researchers tracked changes in three indicators of cardiovascular health: LDL-C (also known as bad cholesterol), hemoglobin A1C (a measure of someone’s average blood sugar over three months), systolic blood pressure (the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats), and body weight.

The analysis found that with an average of six months of being on a vegetarian diet, participants saw some significant improvements in their cardiovascular health. Hemoglobin A1C levels decreased by 0.24 percent with a greater effect noticed among those with type two diabetes. LDL-C levels went down by 12.9 milligrams per deciliter (the normal range is between 50 to 100 milligrams per deciliter) compared to those on regular diets. Body weight also shot down by 3.4 kilograms (or roughly 7.5 pounds), with the greatest reduction seen among those with cardiovascular disease followed by type two diabetes.

Systolic blood pressure didn’t seem to be affected that much. The researchers note that in some of the clinical trials they looked at, patients were on medication to control their blood pressure and that over time while on the diets, their dosages were decreased. This likely obscured the study’s statistical analysis and doesn’t mean plant-based diets don’t help improve high blood pressure.

While there are some limitations to this study such as examining data from small sample sizes and variations in plant-based diets, offer hope that it is possible to eat your way to healthy living.

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