Your heart is the driving force behind many of the everyday functions that keep your body working like a well-oiled machine. One of the most important ways to keep this precious organ going strong is by eating a plant-based diet.
Getting to the Heart of a Plant-Based Diet
A diet that contains mostly fruits and vegetables — a plant-based diet — has fiber, vitamins and minerals that help lower high blood pressure (hypertension) and LDL (bad) cholesterol. They also reduce the risk of diabetes and help you maintain a healthy weight. Together, these nutrients can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Plus, plants are a great way to add variety and flavor to your diet.
In its simplest form, a plant-based diet consists of:
Beans, lentils, peas
Herbs and spices
Nuts and seeds
Olive oil and other plant oils
When you shift to plant-based eating, you consume fewer foods that come from animals, including meat, poultry, dairy, eggs and fish.
Make Simple Changes You Can Maintain
If you feel like a plant-based diet isn’t for you, keep in mind it doesn’t mean you have to stay away from all animal foods. A strict diet is hard to maintain. Start with a few small and manageable changes.
It may help to consider some of the health benefits of eating plants:
A diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy may lower blood pressure
A poor diet may have a negative effect on your blood pressure
A whole-food, plant-based diet may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases
Plant foods are usually the most nutritious when you eat them in their original form. So, have an apple instead of apple juice. Nosh on nuts and seeds instead of pretzels and crackers. Serve up corn on the cob instead of the creamed, canned variety. Less processing is best.
Whole foods retain their vitamins and minerals compared to processed foods. Those nutrients keep you feeling full longer and give you more energy through your day.
Four Foods to Avoid for Your Heart’s Sake
If you want to stay heart-healthy, there are a few foods you’ll want to limit. Here are four to put at the top of your list:
1. Added sugar. The not-so-sweet fact is that added sugar is found in many foods. They include energy drinks, cakes, pies, candy syrup, sodas, sweetened coffee and tea. Keep these sugar-laden items on your “foods-to-limit” list.
2. Alcohol. Too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and can also cause or exacerbate heart failure.
3. Saturated and trans fats. Fatty meats, poultry skin, whole-milk dairy, butter, coconut and palm oils are often packed with saturated fats. Be on the lookout for trans fats in microwaved popcorn, margarine, coffee creamers and some desserts. Try to avoid foods that have the words “partially hydrogenated oil” on their labels.
Some fats are good for you. Those include monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, which is great for cooking. Other healthy fats are polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.
4. Sodium. Many foods would be bland without sodium. But it’s easy to overdo it if you’re eating prepackaged, canned or processed foods. Those are all full of sodium as a preservative. Instead, cook whole foods at home and flavor them with spices or no-salt seasonings.
Start Small When You’re Going Meatless
Not quite ready to give up your meat-eating ways? Start with small steps, like going meatless one day a week. Also, explore new ways to prepare vegetables. For instance, switch out ground beef for a portabella mushroom “burger” or grill a cauliflower “steak.” Here are a few other tips to try:
Become a Recipe Whiz
Have fun looking up interesting recipes for plant-based meals. Start with the American Heart Association website.
Put Veggies to Work When You’re on the Job
Whether or not you have access to a microwave at work, you can enjoy a meatless lunch quickly and easily with just a little planning. You may find it’s more convenient and much faster than fast food.
Stock Up on Plant-Based Foods
A well-stocked fridge and pantry will help keep you from running to the nearest fast food joint. Keep nuts, beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables close at hand. Your heart will thank you.
Not All Plant-Based Diets Are Created Equal
It’s possible to eat a plant-based diet that’s not healthy. For instance, if you drink fruit juices instead of eating fruit. Or you indulge in refined grains like white rice and processed bread instead of whole grains. It won’t do your heart good if you cut down on animal foods only to eat less-healthy plant foods.
After a while, you may find that you’ve become a fan of plant-based eating — and are feeling better than ever.
Read more about how to adopt a plant-based diet.