Can Vegetarianism Help Maintain Your Heart Health?

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
September 13, 2023
Vegetables arranged in a heart shape

Vegetarianism has gotten a lot of hype over the last 15 years. A lifestyle once written off as earthy crunchy, went mainstream around 2010.

There are many reasons people go vegetarian, with the most popular being health. Studies suggest a vegetarian lifestyle may help: 
•    Lower the risk for certain cancers
•    Manage weight 
•    Forestall type 2 diabetes
•    Prevent metabolic syndrome
•    Improve heart health

“Lifestyle choices that can help lower your risk for cardiovascular disease should be strongly considered, as it’s the leading cause of death worldwide,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP.

You’re probably aware that a poor diet is key component of heart disease. And our Western diet isn’t doing us any favors. In fact, a Western diet was associated with a 14 percent increase in heart disease risk, according to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Experts such as the American Heart Association recommend eating minimally processed plant foods (legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds and whole grains), fish/seafood, and low-fat dairy products. This eating pattern is more in line with Mediterranean style eating, which many studies suggest is much healthier for your heart.  

But some experts are taking these recommendations a step further -- suggesting a vegetarian diet. For example, the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) position is that well-planned vegetarian diets may provide health benefits such as preventing and treating certain diseases. The ADA has a valid stance, as vegetarian diets have been linked to substantial improvements beyond standard therapy, according to a meta-analysis published in JAMA Open Network.

In this meta-analysis, 29 small studies were evaluated. Studies were conducted in the United States, Asia, Europe and New Zealand, published between 1990 and 2021 and relied on three-day food diaries or validated 24-hour recall to collect data. Researchers tracked the amount of quality foods and plant-based whole foods consumed by participants. Results showed vegetarian diets can provide:
•    Modest, but significant reductions in bad cholesterol, blood sugar and body weight. 
•    Effective blood sugar control among participants with type 2 diabetes.

Participants with type 2 diabetes experienced the greatest improvements in blood sugar and cholesterol. However, findings also were particularly meaningful for participants with a high risk for heart disease.

The meta-analysis had a few drawbacks. First, the studies were small, limiting the researchers’ ability to draw solid conclusions. Most of these studies were conducted in Western countries, precluding the possibility for researchers to generalize findings for all cultures. And there was an unequal number of low-fat vegetarian studies and higher fat vegetarian studies, preventing researchers from comparing their effects on heart health. Lastly, variables such as caloric intake, physical activity, medications, overall nutrition and cooking methods weren’t taken into account, which could have affected the results.

“The bottom line is, your diet has a profound effect on your overall health, especially your cardiovascular health,” says Kaminetsky. “Although researchers couldn’t show a cause and effect, you can count on their findings that whole, high quality, plant-based foods can help you manage your health.”

Talk to your doctor before making changes to your diet. If you don’t have a doctor, consider joining an MDVIP-affiliated practice. MDVIP-affiliated physicians have the time and resources to help you live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Find one near you and begin your partnership in health »

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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