Plant-based diets protect heart health, but AHA warns there's a catch

The American Heart Association has published a new study that found diets primarily composed of plant-based foods may protect heart health and reduce the risk of early death caused by stroke and heart attack. The findings, which were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, add to the growing body of research highlighting major benefits linked to reducing meat consumption.

Plant-based diets are ones that focus on foods originating from plants, not animals. Though these diets vary in composition, they often emphasize whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and healthy oils. In contrast, these diets often totally eliminate animal products or keep them limited to fish, eggs, and dairy.

The diet detailed in the American Heart Association's new study is one that doesn't entirely eliminate animal products, but rather keeps them to a minimum with plant-based foods receiving priority. Researchers analyzed data on more than 10,000 middle-aged adults located in the United States who did not have cardiovascular disease when they joined the study.

The study looked at what the participants ate, namely the proportion of plant-based foods they consumed in comparison to animal products. The participants who consumed the greatest quantities of plant-based foods were found to have a 32-percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 16-percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

In addition, the study found that these participants had a 25-percent lower risk of dying for any cause when compared to the participants who consumed the lowest quantities of plant-based food products. The American Heart Association claims this is the first diet to study the proportions of plant- and animal-based foods in participants' diets.

Though the study is promising, the researchers note that not all plant-based diets are equal. Benefits are observed in people who consume healthy plant-based diets, one in which whole foods — such as a baked sweet potato or roasted nuts — are consumed. The market is full of highly processed vegan food products that, though plant-based, aren't considered healthy.

The organization's chief science and medical officer Mariell Jessup, M.D., said:

The American Heart Association recommends eating a mostly plant-based diet, provided the foods you choose are rich in nutrition and low in added sugars, sodium (salt), cholesterol and artery-clogging saturated and trans fats. For example, French fries or cauliflower pizza with cheese are plant-based but are low in nutritional value and are loaded with sodium (salt). Unprocessed foods, like fresh fruit, vegetables and grains are good choices.