It’s no secret that eating too much of certain foods may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, but people sometimes forget that what you eat can actually have a positive impact on your heart. Adjusting your diet is an effective and relatively easy way to prevent heart attack and stroke, something I write about here. In fact, research in the field of epigenetics, which looks at how chemical and environmental factors impact our genetic health, has shown that dietary changes can lower your risk of heart disease even if it runs in your family—one study found people who ate more fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease even if they carried copies of the gene that increases risk of heart problems, effectively “turning off” the gene.
So let’s say you’re ready to change the way you eat. Where should you start? I talk about my top five specific foods for heart attack and stroke prevention here, but in general, I’m a big advocate of a whole food, plant-based diet.
What does a whole food, plant-based diet consist of? According to EatPlant-Based.com, it includes food from the following groups:
- Whole grains like oats and brown rice (as well as products like bread made from whole grains)
- Legumes like beans and lentils
- Fruits and vegetables
Some of the foods not recommended when you’re following a plant-based diet are:
- Dairy products
- Processed foods
- Refined sugar and oils
Now that you know what a plant-based diet looks like, you may be wondering how it can reverse heart disease. NutritionFacts.org explains that researchers studied former vegetarians to determine how eating and/or avoiding certain foods affected their cardiovascular health. They found that, among lapsed vegetarians who started eating meat, the odds of developing heart disease increased by 146 percent. They also experienced a 152 percent increase in stroke risk and a 231 percent increase in odds for weight gain. Transitioning from vegetarianism to meat-eating over the course of 12 years was associated with a decrease in life expectancy of 3.6 years. NutrionFacts.org also states that a diet consisting of whole, plant-based foods is the only one that’s ever been shown to reverse heart disease. And Forks Over Knives reports that, according to a soon-to-be-released Harvard study, approximately one-third of early deaths—almost 200,000 per year—could be avoided if people switched to a plant-based diet. The research was led by Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who discussed his findings at a recent conference. “We have been doing some calculations looking at the question of how much could we reduce mortality [by] shifting toward a healthy, more plant-based diet, not necessarily totally vegan, and our estimate is about a third of deaths could be prevented,” Willett said during a panel discussion on plant-based eating. “That’s not even talking about physical activity or not smoking, and that’s all deaths, not just cancer deaths,” He added that the number is likely an underestimate since it doesn’t take obesity into account.
When it comes to reversing heart disease with a plant-based diet, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn is an authority. Director of the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program at The Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute and author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Dr. Esselstyn has extensively researched the effects of a plant-based diet on cardiovascular health. In 1995, he published his benchmark long-term nutritional research on arresting and reversing coronary artery disease in severely ill patients. That same study was updated at 12 years and reviewed beyond 20 years, making it one of the longest longitudinal studies of its type. And a separate study called the Lifestyle Heart Trial conducted by a different team of researchers found that 82% of patients diagnosed with heart disease who followed this plant-based diet program had some clearing of clogged arteries, with 91% experiencing a reduction in the frequency of angina episodes (chest pain caused by a lack of oxygen-rich blood flow to the heart).
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.