Healthy hearts – why a vegan diet is best

Every day in the UK, more than 500 people have to visit the hospital due to a heart attack and 460 people lose their lives due to cardiovascular disease – that’s one death every three minutes. Over seven million people are living with cardiovascular disease in the UK – it’s our biggest killer. 

Atherosclerosis

Many of the problems associated with cardiovascular disease are due to a build-up of fatty deposits called plaques on the inside of blood vessels – it’s known as atherosclerosis. You’re at a higher risk if you have high blood cholesterol, diabetes or are overweight. High blood pressure and smoking also increase the risk as they cause damage to the inner lining of the blood vessels, making it easier for plaques to form. Research shows vegans have a considerably lower risk of all of these risk factors compared to meat-eaters.  

Cholesterol 

Around half of all UK adults are living with raised blood cholesterol and up to eight million are on lipid-lowering drugs such as statins. The biggest cause of raised cholesterol is a diet high in saturated fat but it can also be due to an inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia. As most of the UK’s saturated fat comes from meat and dairy products, clearly the best diet to keep saturated fat low is a vegan one.

It’s important to remember that there is junk vegan food and eating an unhealthy diet high in processed foods and oils can still produce high blood cholesterol. Vegans are not invincible! But overall, vegan diets tend to be lower in unhealthy saturated fats and higher in the healthier mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, such as omega-3 and -6, which are beneficial to heart health. They’re also much higher in fibre, which helps to keep blood cholesterol levels down. 

High blood pressure  

High blood pressure is the biggest risk factor for heart disease in the UK, with up to 50 per cent of heart attacks and strokes being associated with it. Just as high blood pressure increases the risk of atherosclerosis by damaging the blood vessels, atherosclerosis increases the risk of high blood pressure by reducing blood flow – any cardiovascular risk factor can have a massive effect on your health.  

Vascular dementia 

Vascular dementia results in a failing memory, difficulties in problem solving or language and happens because of reduced blood supply to the brain, which causes cells to die. Vascular dementia accounts for one in four cases of dementia in the UK, making it the second most common type after Alzheimer’s. People with a history of cardiovascular disease are twice as likely to develop vascular dementia while those with diabetes are up to three times more likely. 

Diabetes  

Diabetes is caused by abnormally high blood sugar levels and doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease. One of the biggest risk factors for diabetes is being overweight or obese which is less likely on a vegan diet. In fact, vegans are up to 74 per cent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

Diet Prevalence of obesity (%) 
Vegan 9.4
Vegetarian  16.7
Non-vegetarian 33.3

Source: Rizzo et al., 2013. 

What to eat for a healthy heart 

Cutting out animal products and foods high in saturated fat is essential for someone trying to look after their heart but there are also foods that benefit  heart health.  

Nuts  

Numerous studies have shown that nuts - especially walnuts and pistachios - can be very beneficial to heart health. Nuts are high in the amino acid arginine, which can be used by the body to produce nitric oxide, and this is vital for relaxation of the blood vessels which in turn helps to keep them flexible and prevents high blood pressure.

Studies consistently show a protective effect for heart health associated with eating nuts. Four major studies (The Adventist Health Study, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Physicians’ Health Study) found the risk of dying from heart disease was 37 per cent lower for those eating nuts more than four times per week compared to those who never consume nuts, with an average of 8.3 per cent reduction in risk of death for each weekly serving of nuts. 

Nitrate-containing plants 

Nitrate is a chemical found in all plants but in particularly high levels in some, including beetroot and green leafy vegetables such as spinach. Our body converts nitrates into nitrites and then eventually nitric oxide which helps to maintain healthy, flexible blood vessels. Nitrites from vegetables are not linked to cancer in the way that those from processed meat are.   

Wholegrains and pulses 

Wholegrains and pulses are very high in fibre, especially soluble fibre, which helps to maintain gut health. Whilst you may not immediately connect the gut to the heart, our gut bacteria can influence all parts of the body. Some gut bacteria can use dietary fibre to produce substances that reduce the amount of ‘bad’ cholesterol (known as LDL), in our blood. This reduces our risk of various cardiovascular problems, including atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. 

Brightly-coloured fruit and veg 

Bright coloured fruit and veg are high in antioxidants, including flavonoids in berries and lycopene in tomatoes – surprisingly higher in cooked tomatoes and organic tomato sauce. Yes, bright colours are great but there are also many less flamboyant foods, such as cocoa and mushrooms, which contain some of the most potent antioxidants you can find! Inflammation plays a big role in many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, and some studies have shown that diets high in antioxidants can help prevent a range of health problems. 

Final word 

Around 80 per cent of premature heart disease and strokes are preventable – that’s a lot of lives that can be saved just by making simple lifestyle changes. Having a healthy, vegan diet, stopping smoking, limiting alcohol consumption and exercising regularly goes a long way to preventing heart problems.

References: 

Olfert MD and Wattick RA. 2018. Vegetarian Diets and the Risk of Diabetes. Current Diabetes Reports. 18 (11) 101.  

Rizzo NS, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Sabate J and Fraser GE. 2013. Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns. Journal or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 113 (12) 1610-1619.  

Kelly JH and Sabaté J. 2006. Nuts and coronary heart disease: an epidemiological perspective. British Journal of Nutrition. 96, S61-7.

Yoona Kim, Jennifer B Keogh and Peter M Clifton. 2019. Does Nut Consumption Reduce Mortality and/or Risk of Cardiometabolic Disease? An Updated Review Based on Meta-Analyses. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 16 (24) 4957.

 


About the Author

Justine Butler

Dr. Justine Butler is the senior health researcher and writer at Viva! She joined as a health campaigner in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. She also holds a BSc in biochemistry, and a Diploma in nutrition.

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