Making a Plant-Based Diet Work for your Heart Health
Trends in diet come and go, but the concept of a balanced diet is a constant.
Everyone knows fruits and vegetables are healthful foods, however, the
definition of what constitutes a balanced diet has changed. The emphasis
on protein has been reduced and the consumption of more plant-based foods
A balanced diet still includes servings of all food groups, but it is now
defined to include many more servings of fruits, vegetables, grains and
legumes than it does animal proteins such as meat, poultry and dairy.
An enormous amount of scientific data shows exactly how a plant-based diet
supports good health. An area where it has irrefutable benefits is in
the prevention of heart disease. “Reducing any amount of animal
product consumption is beneficial. Even if one doesn’t subscribe
to a full vegan or vegetarian diet, minimizing the consumption of red
meat, processed meats and dairy will reduce cardiovascular mortality in
the long run,” says Torrance Memorial Cardiologist Victoria Shin,
MD. “A plant-based diet reduces consumption of animal products and
high-sodium processed foods. This, in turn, reduces dietary cholesterol
and salt, which in turn reduces risk of high cholesterol and high blood
pressure - two well-known risk factors for heart disease.”
A “semi-vegetarian” or “flexitarian” diet reduces
cholesterol and weight, and lowers the risk of developing hypertension
and heart disease. Both emphasize mostly plant-based foods while allowing
meat and other animal products in moderation.
Shin says when compared to plant protein, the following are associated
with increased cardiovascular mortality rate when consumed: poultry and
fish (6%), dairy (8%), unprocessed red meat (12%), eggs (19%) and processed
In contrast, plant protein was associated with a reduction in mortality
rate of 10 percent. “Plant-based and Mediterranean diets have been
associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality in several observational
studies, as well as a large randomized control study which showed a significant
41 percent mortality reduction in those who had a plant-based diet,”
Dr. Shin says.
She emphasizes it is up to individuals to choose a diet that works with
their lifestyles and can be accomplished successfully. But reducing any
amount of animal product consumption is beneficial.
“Dietary cholesterol is increased by consumption of animal products.
The human body has the ability to remove the bad cholesterol from the
body through receptors in the liver,” she says. “However,
if the dietary intake of cholesterol is significant, it overwhelms the
system. The body can only do so much. And all that extra bad cholesterol
floats around in the bloodstream depositing in arteries and forming plaque.”
Reducing sodium and cholesterol intake is one advantage of a plant-based
diet that improves cardiovascular health, however there are key nutrients
within a plant-based diet worth noting. “A plant-based diet not
only eliminates many foods high in saturated fat, but also is naturally
high in fiber. Consuming adequate fiber and decreasing saturated fats
can help lower our cholesterol levels and therefore decrease the risk
of developing heart disease,” says Dani Rodriguez-Brindicci, MS,
RDN, Director of Clinical Nutrition at Torrance Memorial.
Plant-based diets can be practiced on a spectrum. It does not need to be
an all-or-nothing approach. Individuals can choose to eat more plant-based
foods and fewer animal products. They can also adopt flexitarian, vegetarian
or vegan diets.
Rodriguez-Brindicci understands making changes to diet can be overwhelming.
She says some people hesitate to adopt plant-based diets because they
think their food will be tasteless and boring. She also says cultural
food practices can make embracing a plant-based diet difficult. If friends
and family members are used to connecting over specific meals, they might
pose a challenge to making changes in diet. And some individuals might
still believe they need animal proteins to be healthy.
“We don’t need as much animal protein as we thought we did.
This has been a misconception, and the American diet has way more than
we need of servings of these types of foods,” Rodriguez-Brindicci
says. “You don’t have to have animal protein with every meal.”
She recommends starting slow. Begin by incorporating more plant-based
dishes and meals daily or weekly and generally eating animal foods in
moderation. Get creative with ways to substitute plant foods for animal foods.
Meat Free Monday is a growing movement that can be a good place to start
– it’s a campaign that challenges people to be vegetarian
one day a week.
Another idea is a regular visit to the farmer’s market. Experience
food closer to its source and offered according to the season. Or try
out plant-based foods at a restaurant to get an idea what tastes good,
“There has never been a better time in history for innovations in
plant-based cuisine. I recommend people go out and try vegan restaurants.
Whether it is Mexican food, pizza or desserts, there are many options
to choose from,” she says.
Rodriguez-Brindicci says it is easy to get caught up in trendy diets or
skewed research. The Food Pyramid is outdated and the current model of
a balanced diet is one that includes half of its calories from plant sources
(vegetables and fruit), a quarter from whole grains. The last quarter
should come from healthful proteins – with more plant-based proteins
such as nuts and legumes and fewer animal products.
“If you really want to make a change, I want to encourage people
to see a dietitian and examine health and goals,” she says. “Get
good information from somebody who has a real understanding of it. Then
find what works for you -- that’s the most important part.”
Adopting a Plant-Based Diet
- Start with one meal each day being plant-based.
- Look at plants as the entrée and meat as the condiment or side.
- Pick a certain day or days of the week you will eat plant-based meals.
- Make some of your favorite meat dishes vegetarian instead.
- Shop at your local farmer’s market and see what’s in season.
- Eat at a plant-based restaurant.
- Start slow. It does not need to be an all or nothing approach.
Victoria Shin, MD, is a Torrance Memorial Physician Network cardiologist.
She practices at 2841 Lomita Boulevard, Suite 235 in Torrance. She can
be reached at 310-517-8950.
Dani Rodriguez-Brindicci, MS, RDN, is the Director of Clinical Nutrition
at Torrance Memorial. To schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian
nutritionist at the outpatient Medical Nutrition Therapy Office located
in the Torrance Memorial Specialty Center, call 310-891-6707 or visit