According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), deaths from cardiovascular disease have declined 60 percent since the beginning of 1950. However, for now, heart disease remains the number one health challenge in the U.S. The good news is that with lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise and stress reduction, preventing or reversing heart disease is quite possible.
The pursuit of solutions to improve heart health and prevent future cardiovascular disease is understandably a concern for many Americans. With so many diets out there, it can be confusing trying to choose the best way to eat for our health. If we look at popular diets directly in relation to heart disease, the information becomes much clearer.
Ketogenic, Paleo and Atkins
While the particulars may vary, high protein and low carbohydrate diet plans, such as ketogenic, paleo and the Atkins diet, are very similar. These diets are high in protein and saturated fat, and low in carbohydrates (sugars). The diet plan typically includes plenty of meats, eggs, processed meats, cheeses, fish, nuts, butter, oils, seeds and fruits and vegetables, and limits carbohydrates to 20-50 grams a day. Various health experts remark that eating a large amount of protein and saturated fats from animal sources can increase our risk of heart disease.
These high protein diets do show good outcomes after a brief rise in cholesterol and they do speed up weight loss in the beginning. However, we do not know much about its long-term effects, as there have been no studies over two years. Only 1 percent of the population is able to maintain this diet in the long run; it takes much determination.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), whole grains and legumes are good sources of fiber that can actually lower cholesterol and the risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes and obesity—this may represent a good option rather than replacing carbohydrates with increased red meat and saturated fats.
Vegan Raw Foods
Raw vegan dieters generally don’t eat food that is heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit; this is to preserve the produce’s nutritional content. To date, science has not borne this out. According to Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, “Contrary to the claims of many raw food fans, cooking does not make food toxic, but instead makes some food more digestible.” This diet stresses eating raw fruits and vegetables. The diet leaves out certain food groups like legumes, which are documented to reduce cholesterol and heart disease.
A raw food diet has been shown to lower inflammation, which in turn can protect from heart disease, but we don’t need to eat a raw food diet to get these same protective benefits. The issue with this diet is it takes planning and determination to continue it and can lead to a loss of bone mass and nutritional imbalance, for example.
There are all kinds of vegetarians, or non-meat eaters, including vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and lacto vegetarian. One of the most popular diets is Ornish’s Lacto-Ovo diet and lifestyle program, which has been shown to reverse heart disease for over 20 years.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA)’s position on vegetarian diets is that “appropriately planned nutritionally adequate meals may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes.”
Plant-based eating is growing in popularity because it’s increasingly backed by a wealth of scientific data supporting the health benefits as well as a rise in ethical considerations regarding the agribusiness of meat production. Selected benefits are lower rates of heart disease, high cholesterol and blood pressure. On the other hand, if a vegetarian diet contains increased refined carbohydrates and sugars, it can also increase chances of heart disease.
Mediterranean, DASH and Flexitarian
Similar diets Mediterranean, DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and Flexitarian have been shown in studies to be very effective. These diets emphasize primarily plant-based foods with nine servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, legumes, pasta and rice, a low consumption of meat/poultry, increased consumption of fish and moderate consumption of dairy products.
Based on the current evidence, this type of eating pattern reduces cardiovascular disease by 31 percent when compared to the traditional AHA diet. These diets may also lower the risk of stroke by 20 percent. This study highlighted that low-fat diets are not beneficial to heart health, and incorporating healthy fats—like olive oil, found in these diets—can improve heart health and weight loss.
For these reasons, many major scientific organizations, such as the AMA, encourage healthy adults to adapt a style of eating like that of the Mediterranean DASH and Flexitarian diets for prevention of major chronic diseases. This type of less-restrictive diet tends to be easier for people to maintain. Since it hasn’t been compared head-to-head with a vegan diet, it’s hard to say if one might lead to better outcomes. Both remain good options if the goal is better cardiovascular health.