Category: Nutrition

Benefits of a Plant Based Diet in Keeping A Healthy Heart

Over the last decade, cardiovascular disease (CVD) has taken the form of a global epidemic, with an estimated 18 million deaths each year, making CVD the number one killer globally.* In the US, approximately 1 of every 3 deaths is due to some form of CVD like coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, hypertension, or heart failure.* 

Even though these facts and figures paint a grim picture, the silver lining is that CVD is preventable. The key is to be aware of the risk factors and manage them for a healthy lifestyle; for example, an unhealthy diet, sedentary lifestyle, and heavy tobacco/alcohol usage can certainly be avoided or minimized to prevent cardiovascular events.

Currently, direct dietary counseling of CVD patients is still a challenge mostly due to lack of formal nutrition education among clinicians and the time required to convince patients to adhere to a specific diet.* Additionally, the abundance of information and controversies on food and food groups regarding optimal diet do not necessarily make it easy for people to decide what to eat.

Historically, countless epidemiological studies have highlighted the importance of diets in preventing CVD. They show how specific diet patterns—like eating plant-based foods, consuming foods with low saturated fat—reduce CVD incidence and severity.* In fact, diet changes are the biggest drivers of a healthy heart. Thus, almost all the guidelines now recommend that, along with adequate treatment, clinicians should actively incorporate evidence-based dietary counseling as part of cardiovascular therapies. 

As scientific research continues to shed light on the importance of diet and nutrition, perhaps the most critical questions that we face today are — What is an optimal diet? And how do we implement this optimal diet counseling in clinics? 

Nutrition research and evolution of the plant-based diet

Some of the earliest nutrition research (in the 1950s) highlighted the adverse outcomes of fat-enriched diet (mainly saturated fat) on heart diseases, giving rise to the widespread belief that fatty foods contribute to CVD.* Subsequently, the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans focused heavily on isolated nutrients: “avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; eat foods with adequate starch and fiber; avoid too much sugar; avoid too much sodium”.* 

Soon after, in the 1970s, the Seven Countries Study, spearheaded by Ancel Keys, explored the association of diet and dietary habits with CVD incidence in populations representing seven different regions. The study design illustrated the influence of eating on the risk of CVD. It recognized the power of the plant-based diet, popularly known as the Mediterranean (MED) diet, in lowering cardiovascular mortality risk. Simply put, the MED diet entails — high intake of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and low consumption of dairy and meat (saturated fat), with fats mainly from nuts.* 

This ground-breaking study eventually inspired and prompted a slew of subsequent dietary research. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension; 1997) and PREDIMED (Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea; 2018) are particularly noteworthy since they championed the idea of plant-based foods and the associated benefits to heart health. Similar to the MED diet, the DASH diet consists of a high intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and olive oil with minimal consumption of red/processed meat, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods.

Adherence to the DASH diet resulted in a significant drop in heart failure risk among healthy adults (27% in men; 37% in women),* while a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts lowered the incidence of major cardiovascular events among high-risk individuals.*

Diving deep into the plant-based diet

As of 2017, 6% of Americans claim to be vegetarians or vegans compared with just 1% in 2014.* The number is expected to rise in the coming years as more people become aware of the health benefits of the plant-based or vegetarian diet. 

A plant-based diet not only prevents risks of coronary diseases, but it also has multiple other health benefits that include improving gut microbiota and cognitive brain function. Plant-based foods are one of the richest sources of dietary fiber and essential phytochemicals and great for antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients.

Despite being universally accepted as heart-healthy, wholesome, and nutritionally superior to animal products, plant-based foods are considered protein poor by many. The long-standing belief is that plant-based proteins are incomplete because they don’t have all the essential amino acids that humans need. However, growing evidence from research work is breaking this myth.

Citing the research work of William Rose and team, John. A. McDougall, an American physician and author, states that: “A vegetarian diet based on any single one or combination of these unprocessed starches (e.g., rice, corn, potatoes, beans), with the addition of vegetables and fruits, supplies all the protein, amino acids, essential fats, minerals, and vitamins (except vitamin B12) necessary for excellent health”.*

Christopher Wharton reviewed various research works that show how a plant-based diet is on par with the omnivorous diet in supporting athletic performance and strength among recreational athletes.* Recently, Novak Djokovic, the Serbian tennis legend, credited his plant-based diet as the secret to his remarkable recovery after injury.

Because nutrition is the cornerstone of human health, the role of a physician is crucial than ever in educating patients about positive dietary changes to improve their health and wellbeing. It’s about time that the wealth of scientific knowledge in favor of plant-based diets makes its way into the clinical care regimen, and clinicians incorporate diet communication along with pharmacotherapy.

Contributed by:

Sangeeta Chakraborty Ph.D 
Associate Researcher,
National Jewish Health,
Greater Denver Area, Colorado


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  12. Data, Global. “Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017: Exploring Trends in Meat, Fish and Seafood; Pasta, Noodles and Rice; Prepared Meals; Savory Deli Food; Soup; and Meat Substitutes.” June. Available online: https://www. reportbuyer. com/product/4959853/top-trends-in-prepared-foods-2017-exploring-trends-in-meatfish-and-seafood-pasta-noodles-and-rice-prepared-meals-savory-deli-food-soupand-meat-substitutes. html (accessed July 29, 2017) (2017).
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Half of U.S. Adults Projected to be Obese by 2030

The wide-ranging negative impact of obesity is perhaps most strongly felt in the field of cardiometabolic health, in which diabetes-related complications are on the rise, heart disease remains the leading cause of death, and over 795,000 people in the U.S. suffer from a stroke each year. Increasing the risk of serious cardiometabolic conditions, the obesity public health crisis impacts more than 100 million adults and children in the United States. In addition, experts believe that current estimates of national obesity prevalence may underestimate its true impact due to the fact that statistics are based on self-reported patient information.

 Despite growing public health efforts and lifestyle interventions, researchers predict that nearly half of U.S. adults will be obese if current trends continue and severe obesity is projected to affect nearly 25% of the population, according to a recent MedPage Today report.


Estimating Trends and Projected Obesity Rates

 Led by Zachary Ward, MPH, a team of researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health investigated state-specific and demographic subgroup-specific trends and projected the prevalence of categories of body-mass index. After developing methods to correct for self-reporting bias and better estimate obesity rates, the authors analyzed BMI data reported by over 6,000,000 adults who participated in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey. Data was corrected for quantile-specific self-reporting bias using additional data gathered from participants of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. “We fitted multinomial regressions for each state and subgroup to estimate the prevalence of four BMI categories from 1990 through 2030: underweight or normal weight (BMI <25), overweight (25 to <30), moderate obesity (30 to <35), and severe obesity (≥35),” the study’s authors wrote. To evaluate the accuracy of their model, researchers used data from 1990 through 2010 to predict 2016 obesity prevalence with a successful outcome.


Rapidly Growing Obesity Rates

 Published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the study’s findings  reveal alarming population-wide trends. The results implicate with high predictive accuracy that by the year 2030, nearly 50% of the U.S. adult population will have obesity. The prevalence is expected to be higher than 50% in 29 states and not below 35% in any state.

 Severe obesity – or a BMI of 35 and above – is likely to become the most common BMI category among women (27.6%), non-Hispanic African Americans (31.7%), and low-income adults (31.7%) by 2030.

 “Although severe obesity was once a rare condition, our findings suggest that it will soon be the most common BMI category in the patient populations of many health care providers. Given that health professionals are often poorly prepared to treat obesity, this impending burden of severe obesity and associated medical complications has implications for medical practice and education,” the research team cautioned.


State-by-State Predictions

Evaluating the data further, the study’s authors conducted a state-by-state analysis to predict obesity prevalence for each state. Per their calculations, the highest prevalence is expected in Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, which are projected to reach 58%. On the other hand, California, Colorado, and Hawaii are projected to have the lowest obesity rates, at 41%, 38%, and 41%, respectively. The District of Columbia is projected to have the lowest prevalence of all – 35%. 

The projections reveal worrying trends in obesity prevalence, despite wide-scale national lifestyle interventions and prevention efforts; implications of the study’s findings have potentially tremendous repercussions for nation-wide public health. Severe obesity is associated with disability, disease, and death compared with moderate obesity. “The high projected prevalence of severe obesity among low-income adults and the high medical costs of severe obesity have substantial implications for future health care costs, especially as states expand access to obesity-related services for adult Medicaid beneficiaries,” Ward and colleagues wrote.

 Both the prevalence of obesity and severe obesity in U.S. adults will continue rising nationwide, with large disparities between states and demographic subgroups. Although, the estimates assume increases in obesity prevalence according to current rates – one of the main limitations of the research, which may result in larger uncertainties than estimated. However, with increased and improved interventions in at-risk populations, this trend can hopefully be reversed