Heart disease is the #1 killer in the US, and elevated cholesterol levels is thought to be a primary cause (see also here). This may explain why a plant-based diet, which is free of cholesterol and saturated animal fats, has been so successful in preventing and treating the disease (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). The balance of evidence suggests that a plant-based diet may not only protect against and even reverse heart disease (see here, here, and here). Reversing heart disease is critical considering heart disease often starts in childhood. Heart disease was found to be almost non-existent in populations eating a diet centered around whole plant foods (see here and here). The arteries of those eating a plant-based diet have less atherosclerotic plaque than runners and than those on a low-carb diet. But if those adhering to a plant-based diet do not consume enough vitamin B12, they may negate the cardiovascular benefits. Those on a Paleo diet may also negate the cardiovascular benefits of exercise. Plant foods are the only source of heart-healthy fiber, while animal-products are the only significant source of cholesterol (see here, here). In terms of target cholesterol level, it appears to be best to get as low as possible (see also here, here, here, here).
Unfortunately, due to a lack of nutrition education in medical schools, many doctors may be unaware of the power of nutrition to stop our number one killer (see here, here). Ignorance is one of a number of factors to blame for the lack of information presented to patients on dietary changes that can improve heart health (see also here, here, and here). The “sick population” concept that leads nutrition studies to underestimate the role of diet in disease. Sadly, the most common treatment is the prescription of cholesterol-lowering drugs (see also here, here, here, and here) which is be linked to increased breast cancer risk among other adverse side effects. Meanwhile, whole grains, grapefruit, and exercise may help lower cholesterol naturally (see also here). There are some doctors, however, who choose to inform their patients of the cardiovascular benefits of a plant-based diet (see also here). Erectile dysfunction and other vascular insufficiency symptoms may be an early warning sign for heart disease and can be reversed with diet (see also here). Pistachio nuts and watermelon may in particular help improve penis blood flow. Heart disease may also lead to low back pain and sciatica.
Medicare now reimburses programs that heart disease through diet and lifestyle changes (see also here and here). Unfortunately, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines have yet to follow the lead of other countries that have successfully combatted this scourge. The history of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines may shed some light on some reasons why. Fortunately the American Heart Association has come out with seven lifestyle goals to combat heart disease.
Eating just one egg a day may exceed the safe limit of cholesterol and has been linked to a shortened lifespan (see also here). Eggs are so high in cholesterol that the Egg Industry cannot even legally claim that eggs are “nutritious” (see here, here, here, here, here, here). Big Egg is not the only industry attempting to mislead about the health consequences of their products. Meat may increase heart disease mortality (see here and here), and fish and fish oil supplements may not be as heart-healthy as once thought, due to contamination with mercury and industrial pollutants (see here, here). Chicken and fish consumption may have the same negative impact as red meat on our cholesterol. Dairy may increase heart disease risk because dairy products are the #1 source of saturated fat in the American diet, which the dairy industry has attempted to convince the public is untrue through misleading campaigns. The heme iron found in animal foods may also increase heart disease risk.
There are certain plant foods which may be especially protective against heart disease, especially foods high in nitrates, antioxidants (see also here), fiber, and potassium. These include greens such as kale, soy and other beans (see also here and here), nuts (see also here, here, here, and here, including peanut butter), tea (especially hibiscus and green tea), flax seeds (see also here), whole grains, red rice, citrus, Ceylon cinnamon, coffee (see also here), cocoa (not chocolate), dark chocolate, dried apples (see also here), Indian gooseberries (see also here), golden raisins and currants, berries, tomatoes, oatmeal, and some spices (such as turmeric – see also here). For additional benefits, look to cooking some vegetables (see also here), exercising 1 hour each day, and sleeping 7 hours each night.
While vitamin C supplements and multivitamins may be useless but harmless, we should probably avoid vitamin A, E, and beta-carotene supplements. Also associated with adverse cardiac consequences: coconut oil (see here) and coconut milk, dark fish in particular, Premarin, salt (see also here), high fat meals (including olive oil), BPA in plastics, and smoking. Alcohol appears to possibly be protective against heart disease but is not recommended because it increases the risk of cancer.
For a more in depth look at heart disease and the role of diet, check out Dr. Greger’s annual year end reviews:
Topic summary contributed by Katie.