Study Shows Plant-Based Diets Are Good for Heart Health—Do You Need to Go Entirely Vegan?

  • New research found that plant-based diets can boost cardiovascular health.
  • This is due to lower cholesterol levels that are often associated with vegetarian or vegan eating habits.
  • Experts note that you don’t need to cut out animal products entirely to reap the heart-healthy benefits—instead, try making small changes toward plant-forward eating.

New research confirmed the long-standing hypothesis that plant-based diets can help decrease levels of cholesterol and fats in the blood and promote heart health.

According to the World Health Organization, 18 million people die from cardiovascular disease each year. The main contributing factor to cardiovascular disease is atherosclerosis, which is a thickening or hardening of your arteries as layers of plaque build up over time.

Prevention through diet and exercise is key to protecting yourself from early onset of cardiovascular disease. With the growing concern for the environment, plant-based and vegan diets have become more popular.

A new study indicated that eating more plants is a major factor in preventing and slowing down the progression of atherosclerosis.

Woman picking up an apple at the grocery store

Woman picking up an apple at the grocery store

Getty Images / d3sign

What the Research Says

In order to understand how plant-based eating impacts heart health, the research team out of Denmark conducted a meta-analysis of 30 randomized controlled trials published between 1980 and 2022. The selected studies quantified the effects of vegetarian and vegan diets compared to omnivorous diets on blood lipids and lipoprotein levels in adults over age 18.

Blood lipids include total cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins (LDL), high-density lipoproteins (HLD), and triglycerides. Research shows that LDL cholesterol and apoB-containing lipoproteins are a marker for cardiovascular disease.

In this study, published in the European Heart Journal, the authors found that vegetarian and vegan diets decreased LDL, or bad, cholesterol by 10%, total cholesterol by 7%, and apolipoprotein B by 14%. The findings also suggest that the adoption of a plant-based diet could postpone or even eliminate the need for statins.

“Animal products have cholesterol and saturated fats which can impact your cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are the bigger factor in increasing the “bad” LDL cholesterol. Foods high in cholesterol also tend to be higher in saturated fats,” Amanda Sauceda, MS, RD, told Health.

When digested, foods high in saturated fats increase LDL cholesterol production, and too many stays in the blood. These foods include fatty cuts of meat, whole-fat dairy, butter, pastries, sausages, cheese, and bacon.

Justine Chan, MHSc, RD, CDE, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator based in Toronto, also noted, “the effect of animal products on cholesterol depends on your diet as a whole. For example, a meat-containing diet high in refined carbohydrates could lead to higher levels of cholesterol than say, a meat-containing diet high in polyunsaturated fats like fish and walnuts.”

From the analysis of the 30 studies, researchers found that vegetarian and vegan diets were associated with a greater decrease in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and apoB compared to omnivorous diets.

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Cholesterol and Heart Health

A decreased consumption of fats leads to lower intestinal absorption of cholesterol and results in decreased levels of cholesterol-containing lipoproteins in the blood. Interestingly, this study showed that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, walnuts, and seeds, did not have a significant effect.

Sauceda added that “grilled meat can also not be great for the heart. Grilling meats produced advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are inflammatory compounds that could contribute to cardiovascular disease.”

While the findings in this study suggest that plant-based diets help improve lipid profiles, implementing and maintaining a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet can pose a challenge for many.

In one study, over 1,000 individuals with coronary heart disease were assigned to follow the Mediterranean diet or a low-fat diet. Both of these diets are high in complex carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables, and low in saturated fat, red, and processed meats.

Results indicated that a repeat CVD event was significantly reduced in both diets, however, the Mediterranean diet was superior to the low-fat diet.

By definition, the Mediterranean diet is not completely meat and dairy free but focuses on a high intake of plant-based foods as well as unsaturated fats from fish, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. This study showed that there is a still beneficial effect of decreasing the risk for cardiovascular disease by just a reduced intake of animal products.

In fact, it may be easier for an individual to maintain a diet that is mostly plant-based but includes some meat in the long term.

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Finding Plant-Based Balance

The good news is you don’t have to completely eliminate animal products from your diet in order to reap the heart health benefits of a plant-based diet.

Try to opt for a maximum of three servings of meat per week, which is about 8 to 12 ounces cooked.

“People can find balance by dedicating a day of the week to meatless meals or adding in non-meat foods they like, such as beans, on a daily basis, or experimenting with plant-based substitutes like tofu. Focusing on plant-based foods they already love and enjoy is key,” explained Chan.

There are many small, easy steps individuals can take to incorporate more plants into their diet and also improve cholesterol levels.

Sauceda suggested, “Building your meals around veggies. A simple switch in how you meal prep can help you find balance. Instead of thinking about which protein you’re going to eat that night, start with the veggie. You’re automatically going to eat more plant-based.”

Other easy to incorporate more plant-based habits into your day include:

  • Keeping pre-cut veggies and fruit in your fridge for easy access to plant-based snacks
  • Adding fresh greens into smoothies
  • Picking one meal a week to keep plant-focused
  • Bulk up meat-based meals by mixing plants with animal proteins
  • Swap some meat out for veggie options
  • Include lentils and chopped mushrooms in a vegetarian bolognese sauce or burger patties
  • Add beans to soups

“Don’t force yourself to include plants solely because you think they are healthy,” Sauceda concluded. “The healthiest way to be plant-based is to pick plants you actually enjoy because you’re more likely to stay consistent.”

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