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A New Balance

Making a Plant-Based Diet Work for your Heart Health

Trends in diet come and go, but the concept of a balanced diet is a constant. Everyone knows fruits and vegetables are healthful foods, however, the definition of what constitutes a balanced diet has changed. The emphasis on protein has been reduced and the consumption of more plant-based foods recommended.

A balanced diet still includes servings of all food groups, but it is now defined to include many more servings of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes than it does animal proteins such as meat, poultry and dairy.

An enormous amount of scientific data shows exactly how a plant-based diet supports good health. An area where it has irrefutable benefits is in the prevention of heart disease. “Reducing any amount of animal product consumption is beneficial. Even if one doesn’t subscribe to a full vegan or vegetarian diet, minimizing the consumption of red meat, processed meats and dairy will reduce cardiovascular mortality in the long run,” says Torrance Memorial Cardiologist Victoria Shin, MD. “A plant-based diet reduces consumption of animal products and high-sodium processed foods. This, in turn, reduces dietary cholesterol and salt, which in turn reduces risk of high cholesterol and high blood pressure - two well-known risk factors for heart disease.”

A “semi-vegetarian” or “flexitarian” diet reduces cholesterol and weight, and lowers the risk of developing hypertension and heart disease. Both emphasize mostly plant-based foods while allowing meat and other animal products in moderation.

Shin says when compared to plant protein, the following are associated with increased cardiovascular mortality rate when consumed: poultry and fish (6%), dairy (8%), unprocessed red meat (12%), eggs (19%) and processed meat (34%).

In contrast, plant protein was associated with a reduction in mortality rate of 10 percent. “Plant-based and Mediterranean diets have been associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality in several observational studies, as well as a large randomized control study which showed a significant 41 percent mortality reduction in those who had a plant-based diet,” Dr. Shin says.

She emphasizes it is up to individuals to choose a diet that works with their lifestyles and can be accomplished successfully. But reducing any amount of animal product consumption is beneficial.

“Dietary cholesterol is increased by consumption of animal products. The human body has the ability to remove the bad cholesterol from the body through receptors in the liver,” she says. “However, if the dietary intake of cholesterol is significant, it overwhelms the system. The body can only do so much. And all that extra bad cholesterol floats around in the bloodstream depositing in arteries and forming plaque.”

Reducing sodium and cholesterol intake is one advantage of a plant-based diet that improves cardiovascular health, however there are key nutrients within a plant-based diet worth noting. “A plant-based diet not only eliminates many foods high in saturated fat, but also is naturally high in fiber. Consuming adequate fiber and decreasing saturated fats can help lower our cholesterol levels and therefore decrease the risk of developing heart disease,” says Dani Rodriguez-Brindicci, MS, RDN, Director of Clinical Nutrition at Torrance Memorial.

Plant-based diets can be practiced on a spectrum. It does not need to be an all-or-nothing approach. Individuals can choose to eat more plant-based foods and fewer animal products. They can also adopt flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diets.

Rodriguez-Brindicci understands making changes to diet can be overwhelming. She says some people hesitate to adopt plant-based diets because they think their food will be tasteless and boring. She also says cultural food practices can make embracing a plant-based diet difficult. If friends and family members are used to connecting over specific meals, they might pose a challenge to making changes in diet. And some individuals might still believe they need animal proteins to be healthy.

“We don’t need as much animal protein as we thought we did. This has been a misconception, and the American diet has way more than we need of servings of these types of foods,” Rodriguez-Brindicci says. “You don’t have to have animal protein with every meal.” She recommends starting slow. Begin by incorporating more plant-based dishes and meals daily or weekly and generally eating animal foods in moderation. Get creative with ways to substitute plant foods for animal foods.

Meat Free Monday is a growing movement that can be a good place to start – it’s a campaign that challenges people to be vegetarian one day a week.

Another idea is a regular visit to the farmer’s market. Experience food closer to its source and offered according to the season. Or try out plant-based foods at a restaurant to get an idea what tastes good, Rodriguez-Brindicci suggests.

“There has never been a better time in history for innovations in plant-based cuisine. I recommend people go out and try vegan restaurants. Whether it is Mexican food, pizza or desserts, there are many options to choose from,” she says.

Rodriguez-Brindicci says it is easy to get caught up in trendy diets or skewed research. The Food Pyramid is outdated and the current model of a balanced diet is one that includes half of its calories from plant sources (vegetables and fruit), a quarter from whole grains. The last quarter should come from healthful proteins – with more plant-based proteins such as nuts and legumes and fewer animal products.

“If you really want to make a change, I want to encourage people to see a dietitian and examine health and goals,” she says. “Get good information from somebody who has a real understanding of it. Then find what works for you -- that’s the most important part.”

Adopting a Plant-Based Diet

  1. Start with one meal each day being plant-based.
  2. Look at plants as the entrée and meat as the condiment or side.
  3. Pick a certain day or days of the week you will eat plant-based meals.
  4. Make some of your favorite meat dishes vegetarian instead.
  5. Shop at your local farmer’s market and see what’s in season.
  6. Eat at a plant-based restaurant.
  7. Start slow. It does not need to be an all or nothing approach.

Victoria Shin, MD, is a Torrance Memorial Physician Network cardiologist. She practices at 2841 Lomita Boulevard, Suite 235 in Torrance. She can be reached at 310-517-8950.

Dani Rodriguez-Brindicci, MS, RDN, is the Director of Clinical Nutrition at Torrance Memorial. To schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian nutritionist at the outpatient Medical Nutrition Therapy Office located in the Torrance Memorial Specialty Center, call 310-891-6707 or visit Torrancememorial.org/nutrition.