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"A nutritionally rich, plant-centered diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health. A plant-centered diet is not necessarily vegetarian," said Yuni Choi, co-author of one of the studies. Choi is a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, in Minneapolis.
"People can choose among plant foods that are as close to natural as possible, not highly processed," Choi said in a journal news release.
Choi's study included nearly 5,000 U.S. adults enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. They were aged 18 to 30 years and free of heart disease at the time of enrollment in 1985 to 1986.
During 32 years of follow-up, almost 300 participants developed cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, stroke, heart failure, heart-related chest pain or clogged arteries somewhere in the body.
However, folks who ate the most nutritionally rich plant foods were 52% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease. The protective eating habits included consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains, and fewer unhealthy animal products such as high-fat red meat.
The researchers also found that participants who improved their diet the most between ages 25 to 50 were 61% less likely to develop heart disease than those whose diet quality declined the most during that time.
Because there were few vegetarians among the participants, the study wasn't able to assess the possible benefits of a strict vegetarian diet that excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy and eggs.
"We think that individuals can include animal products in moderation from time to time, such as non-fried poultry, non-fried fish, eggs and low-fat dairy," Choi said.
The other study included more than 123,000 participants in the Women's Health Initiative. This is a long-term U.S. study looking at prevention and early detection of serious health conditions in postmenopausal women.
The women in this new analysis enrolled in the study between 1993 and 1998 when they were between ages 50 to 79 (average age 62) and did not have cardiovascular disease. They were followed until 2017 to see if the so-called Portfolio Diet reduced their risk of heart problems.
The Portfolio Diet includes nuts; plant protein from soy, beans or tofu; viscous soluble fiber from oats, barley, okra, eggplant, oranges, apples and berries; and plant sterols from enriched foods and monounsaturated fats found in olive and canola oil and avocados. Intake of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol is limited.
Women who followed the Portfolio Diet most closely were 11% less likely to develop any type of cardiovascular disease, 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease and 17% less likely to develop heart failure, compared to those who followed the diet less frequently, the researchers found.
"These results present an important opportunity, as there is still room for people to incorporate more cholesterol-lowering plant foods into their diets," said Dr. John Sievenpiper, senior author of the study. He's an associate professor of nutritional sciences and medicine at the University of Toronto, in Canada.
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"With even greater adherence to the Portfolio dietary pattern, one would expect an association with even less cardiovascular events, perhaps as much as cholesterol-lowering medications. Still, an 11% reduction is clinically meaningful and would meet anyone's minimum threshold for a benefit. The results indicate the Portfolio Diet yields heart-health benefits," Sievenpiper added.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers a guide to a healthy heart.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Heart Association, news release, Aug. 4, 2021
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