Eating More of This One Thing Cuts Your Heart Disease Risk in Half, Study Says

A pair of studies finds that following this type of diet boosts cardiovascular health.

Keeping your heart healthy requires plenty of proactive steps, especially when it comes to what you eat. After all, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For most people, maintaining a healthy diet usually involves removing problematic foods from their regular rotation. But according to two new studies, eating more of one type of food can slash your risk of heart disease in half. Read on to see what you should be working more of into your meals.

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Eating more plant-based foods can cut your risk of heart disease in half.

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The first of the two studies, recently published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, set out to determine how adopting a long-term diet focused on plant-based foods could affect the development of heart disease later in life. To test their theory, a research team analyzed data from 4,946 adults between the ages of 18 and 30 who were enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. Participants had their health tracked with eight follow-up exams from 1987-88 to 2015-16.

Researchers then conducted diet history interviews and ranked each participant using the A Priori Diet Quality Score (APDQS) at the study's outset, seven years, and 20 years later. Foods classified as beneficial—including vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, and nuts—were awarded higher scores than adverse foods such as high-fat red meat, fried potatoes, salty snacks, pastries, and sugary drinks. Neutral foods were listed as refined grains, potatoes, lean meats, and shellfish. The researchers found that typically, higher scores among participants correlated with those who ate a plant-based diet.

Results showed that participants who scored in the top 20 percentile of long-term diet scores were 52 percent less likely to develop heart disease. But the researchers also found that participants whose scores increased between years seven and 20—when most participants were between the ages of 25 and 50—were 61 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those whose diets worsened over the same time period.

The study's authors say healthy, plant-centered diets aren't necessarily fully vegetarian.

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The study's authors pointed out that no direct link can be drawn between cardiovascular health and plant-based diets since it was an observational study. They also said that there were few true vegetarians in the group, making it impossible to determine the effects of a strict plant-based on the risk of heart disease. However, the research team pointed out that the study was one of the first to focus on the long-term effects of an entire diet instead of singular foods or nutrients, making their findings an important stepping stone to better understanding the relationship between heart health and what we eat.

"A nutritionally rich, plant-centered diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health. A plant-centered diet is not necessarily vegetarian," Yuni Choi, PhD, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral researcher in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said in a statement. "People can choose among plant foods that are as close to natural as possible, not highly processed. 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."

RELATED: Eating This Makes You 46 Percent More Likely to Die From Heart Disease.

A second study found the plant-based "Portfolio Diet" also reduced heart disease risk.

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The second of the two studies looked to examine whether a plant-based diet recommended by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) aimed at lowering "bad" cholesterol often referred to as the "Portfolio Diet" could affect the risk of heart disease in older women. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), its staples include: "nuts; plant protein from soy, beans or tofu; viscous soluble fiber from oats, barley, okra, eggplant, oranges, apples, and berries; plant sterols from enriched foods and monounsaturated fats found in olive and canola oil and avocados; along with limited consumption of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol."

A team of researchers analyzed data on 123,330 postmenopausal women between the ages of 50 and 79 who had not been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. Participants were then followed up for an average of 15 years with self-reported food-frequency questionnaires.

The team found that women who followed the Portfolio Diet most closely were  percent less likely to develop any kind of heart disease than women who did not follow the diet. It also found that they were 14 percent less likely to develop coronary heart disease overall and 17 percent less likely to develop heart failure.

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Even small additions to your diet can help boost your cardiovascular health.

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The researchers pointed out that a direct cause-and-effect can't be established as an observational study. However, they said that the study's design and its large sample set made it a reliable indicator and urged for more research focused on the diet's effect on younger men and women.

"These results present an important opportunity, as there is still room for people to incorporate more cholesterol-lowering plant foods into their diets," John Sievenpiper, MD, PhD, the study's senior author from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and associate professor of nutritional sciences and medicine at the University of Toronto, said in a statement. "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 percent reduction is clinically meaningful and would meet anyone's minimum threshold for a benefit. The results indicate the Portfolio Diet yields heart-health benefits."

The researchers also pointed out that even incremental steps towards the plant-based diet could help reduce the risk of heart disease. "We also found a dose-response in our study, meaning that you can start small, adding one component of the Portfolio Diet at a time, and gain more heart-health benefits as you add more components," Andrea J. Glenn, one of the study's lead authors and a doctoral student at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, said in a statement.

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Zachary Mack
Zachary is a freelance writer covering beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. Read more
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