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Plant-Based Diet When You’re Younger Could Prevent Heart Issues Later, Study Says

People eating vegetables

Key Takeaways

  • Eating a plant-centered diet when you’re a young adult could lower cardiovascular disease risk in middle age, a new study suggests.
  • If you’re already older, it’s still not too late; another study found heart health benefits with a plant-based diet in postmenopausal women.
  • Researchers emphasize that the more you add, the greater the benefits could be.

For years, parents have urged kids to eat their fruits and vegetables. But now a new study shows just how important it is for both the young (and the old) to eat a plant-based diet.

In fact, focusing on more plant foods in young adulthood could have a protective effect for decades, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“A plant-centered diet is not necessarily vegetarian,” emphasizes lead author Yuni Choi, PhD, a researcher in epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “We think individuals can include animal products in moderation from time to time, such as non-fried poultry, non-fried fish, eggs, and low-fat dairy.”

About the Study

Researchers examined diet data and heart disease occurrence in nearly 5,000 young adults enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study. That research, which began in 1985, tracked participants’ lifestyle habits until 2016.

Food groups were assessed based on their known association with cardiovascular disease, and those in the “beneficial” categories included plant-based options like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains. Non-beneficial options included salty snacks, pastries, high-fat red meat, and fried potatoes. Neutral choices were foods like potatoes, refined grains, lean meats, and shellfish.

Based on 32 years of follow-up, people who ate the most nutritionally rich plant foods and fewer non-beneficial animal products were 52% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease in midlife compared to those who did not.

Yuni Choi, PhD

What’s helpful with this current research is that we’re examining the effects of a plant-based diet, which encompasses many different foods, working together.

— Yuni Choi, PhD

Broader Nutrition Strategy

In looking at the link between nutrition and heart health, previous research tended to focus on single foods or single nutrients, says Choi. For example, a research review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences looked at the role of vitamin C deficiency in cardiovascular disease. Another study, recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, focused on ultra-processed foods like pizza, soft drinks, and potato chips.

“What’s helpful with this current research is that we’re examining the effects of a plant-based diet, which encompasses many different foods, working together,” Choi says.

That means rather than eating select foods—like those containing vitamin C, for example—or concentrating on eliminating certain foods, people can consider a broader strategy that creates a foundation for their nutrition.

Another important point, Choi adds, is that there were few vegetarians in the study group, which means a plant-centered diet doesn’t necessarily mean cutting out all animal products. Instead, she says it is a matter of eating them on a more selective basis.

Never Too Late

For those who are already in midlife and beyond who didn’t have a plant-centered diet when they were younger, another recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association indicates that it is still possible to get heart health advantages with a switch to more plant foods.

John Sievenpiper, MD, PhD

There’s still an opportunity at midlife and beyond to make a difference in your cardiovascular health.

— John Sievenpiper, MD, PhD

Those researchers looked at the effects of a breadth of plant-based foods on cardiovascular disease events in over 123,000 postmenopausal women. Foods examined included plant protein from soy, beans, or tofu, soluble fiber from oats and barley, fruits and vegetables, and monounsaturated fats found in olive oil and canola oil, as well as avocados.

Participants’ health and diets were followed for about 15 years, and those who ate more of these types of foods were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and heart failure.

“This shows there’s still an opportunity at midlife and beyond to make a difference in your cardiovascular health,” says senior author John Sievenpiper, MD, PhD, associate professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. “It’s a good indication that adding more cholesterol-lowering plant foods into your diet can have major heart-health benefits.”

The study also suggests that the more you add, the greater the effects, he says. That means focusing on gradually integrating more plant-based foods into your diet can build up your benefits as you go.

What This Means For You

Recent studies suggest adding plant-based foods to your diet can benefit heart health, both in the short-term and for decades ahead. What's more, it's never too late to take advantage of these benefits. Talk to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian about whether or not a plant-based diet is right for you.

 

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4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Choi Y, Larson N, Steffen LM, et al. Plant‐centered diet and risk of incident cardiovascular disease during young to middle adulthoodJAHA. 2021;10(16):e020718. doi:10.1161/JAHA.120.020718

  2. Moser MA, Chun OK. Vitamin C and heart health: a review based on findings from epidemiologic studiesInt J Mol Sci. 2016;17(8):1328. doi:10.3390/ijms17081328

  3. Juul F, Vaidean G, Lin Y, Deierlein AL, Parekh N. Ultra-processed foods and incident cardiovascular disease in the Framingham Offspring StudyJ Am Coll Cardiol. 2021;77(12):1520-1531. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2021.01.047

  4. Glenn AJ, Lo K, Jenkins DJA, et al. Relationship between a plant‐based dietary portfolio and risk of cardiovascular disease: findings from the Women’s Health Initiative Prospective Cohort StudyJAHA. 2021;10(16):e021515. doi:10.1161/JAHA.121.021515