Plant Power Diet

Plant Power Diet

You know how delicious juicy tomatoes, sweet peaches and sizzling hot peppers are, but are you aware of the power of fruit and veggies for your heart health? Get the scoop on how a plant-based diet can help your heart grow younger.

In a study from the Cleveland Clinic, 198 women and men with heart disease stayed on a produce-packed, plant-based diet for three and a half years. They gave up processed foods, added sugars and salt, meat, poultry -- even fish, vegetable oils, and caffeine. On their plates: Loads of artery-pampering leafy greens, hearty whole grains, satisfying beans and helpings of fruits and veggies.

It was a huge diet overhaul for the study volunteers and an impressive 89% stuck with it. The results changed lives. A whopping 94% of those who stayed on the plant-power diet saw symptoms like chest pain reduced. Just one person from that group suffered a health event related to artery disease. In contrast, 62% of those who didn’t stick with the diet experienced an heart-damaging event, including stroke, artery-clearing or bypass surgery and heart-related death.

In the plant group, results from heart scans and stress tests found measurable improvements in one in five, leading the researchers to note that “farmstand feasting” can help some people reverse heart disease. Volunteers also lost an average of 19 pounds apiece. Note: Participants stayed on their heart meds, making changes only as recommended by their doctors.

Ways Produce Helps
So how does the plant-heart connection work for us? Our friends at the Cleveland Clinic point out four big benefits:

  1. Artery protection. Cutting out processed foods, animal proteins, and dairy reduces intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which increase artery-damaging LDL cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. Removing them from your diet also protects the endothelial cells that line the walls of your arteries and helps keep them from releasing compounds that make arteries tighten. 
  2. Revitalized blood vessels. Eating loads of leafy greens, like kale, spinach, and collards, helps your body produce new copies of the cells that line artery walls. Healthy arteries produce loads of nitric oxide, a beneficial compound that keeps your blood vessels relaxed.
  3. A better “good bug” mix in your intestines. Cutting out red meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal proteins reduces the effects of “bad” bacteria in your digestive system that churn out a compound called TMAO. TMAO creates inflammation that clogs up your arteries.
  4. Better blood fats and blood sugar. A high-fiber, low-fat, plant-focused eating plan can also lower levels of heart-threatening triglycerides (a blood fat) as well as homocysteine (another compound that can raise heart attack risk). It also helps your body absorb blood sugar more easily.

Harnessing Plant Power
To start reaping the delicious benefits of plant-based eating, start with these small, yet powerful changes:

  1. Nix food felons. Banish foods packed with saturated fat, trans fats, added sweeteners, syrups and sodium.
  2. Get bean-y. Twice a week, replace animal proteins on your plate with hearty three-bean chili, a bowl of white bean and kale soup or beans and brown rice. Pair beans with whole grains like quinoa, whole-grain pasta, wraps, and barley, too.
  3. Have leafy greens every day. Salad, a side dish of sautéed kale, collards, spinach or chard, a green smoothie -- find new ways to fit in a variety of greens.
  4. Start the day with oats and fruit. Oatmeal’s packed with cholesterol-clobbering soluble fiber. Top it with berries (and a splash of fat-free milk if you’d like) and you’re good to go.

Medically reviewed in October 2019.

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