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Eating Vegan for Heart Health

When professional soccer player Toni Pressley began a vegan diet, she lost weight, increased her energy and stamina, slept better at night and found her mood improve. But she got an added benefit of improving her heart health.

Toni had already been a vegetarian, so she already didn’t eat fish, chicken or meat, but she did eat dairy and egg products. With the vegan, or a 100-percent plant-based diet, she eliminated dairy and egg products too. “One of the amazing advantages of eating a plant-based diet is  that I do not consume any of pesky dietary cholesterol that one would from animals,” she said. “In terms of heart health, this is a great thing because my blood and my arteries are in good shape, thus reducing any risk of heart attack and/or heart disease.” 

A Vegan Diet for Heart Health

Vegan diets reduce cholesterol, such as the low-density lipoproteins, in the body. Plants do not contain cholesterol, which is a fat-like substance that is naturally produced in the body. Dietary cholesterol is only found in foods from animal sources. While your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones, too much in the blood can create narrowing of the arteries, leading to coronary artery disease.

In addition to plants not adding cholesterol to the body, plant-based foods are rich in antioxidants, primarily coming from the vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables, said board certified specialist in sports dietetics and registered dietician Rikki Keen. “A diet that contains fats derived from plants, such as olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds provides healthful monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats,” she said. “ This reduces the amount of saturated fats from red meat that are known to increase inflammation and the risk of heart disease."

Vegan diets have additional benefits. High in fiber from whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, the foods increase gut health and help maintain blood sugar levels. The nutritional benefits of eating a plant-based diet are linked to healthy weight, lower LDL cholesterol, lower inflammation, reduced risk of diabetes and improved heart health, Keen added. $name

Finding the Right Plant-Based Diet for You

Think of becoming vegan as a journey, rather than a quick change, Keen advised. “I would advise not to go from a typical standard American diet (low fruits and vegetables, high processed, refined and sugary foods) straight to vegan,” she said. It takes time to adjust, to shopping for new foods, fixing new recipes and adjusting to new tastes. Some people may decide to try out different types of vegetarian, perhaps including eggs or fish in the diet.

If you are following an all plant-based vegan diet, you will need to make sure you have enough vitamin B12, essential fatty acids (EPA, DHA) and iron, or take supplements if necessary. Seeing a registered dietitian to optimally plan out a vegan diet also can help ensure there are no nutritional gaps. 

Adding Plant-Based Foods

Even if you’re not ready to completely transition to a plant-based diet, you can still incorporate more plant-based foods to help your heart. Here’s how:

  • Start with meatless Mondays.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables that are the color of the rainbow (purple, red, orange, yellow and green).
  • Enjoy healthy fats and fiber, including olive oil, walnuts, avocado, flaxseed (ground), whole grains and legumes.
  • Reduce 1-2 servings per day of animal-based foods.
  • Prep and plan out meals at home, adding  meat-free recipes.
  • If you eat out, try one of the plant-based restaurants in town; there are so many vegan dishes that are delicious.
  • When including red meat, poultry and fish, look for organic, pasture-raised and wild options when possible, and monitor portions.
  • Reduce fried foods, processed foods and sweets.

Remember that developing a healthier diet is a trial-and-error process, Keen said. Give yourself – and your taste buds -- time to adjust to the changes. “Strive to be plant based 70 to 80 percent of the time and practice, practice, practice,” she said. “It is a long-term lifestyle change, not a ‘diet.’ ”

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