Cardiovascular disease is the number one health problem in the U.S., accounting for more than 1 million heart attacks annually and 2,400 deaths every day.(1) Because we now know what causes heart attacks, we can prevent them. Studies show that people who have heart attacks often have high cholesterol levels; many also have high blood pressure. Heart attacks are rare when these symptoms are controlled.
Cholesterol and Your Heart
A total cholesterol value above 200 mg/dL may indicate a greater risk for heart disease.(2) Elevated cholesterol levels promote atherosclerosis—the buildup of cholesterol, fat, and cells in the arteries that feed the heart muscle. When these arteries become clogged, a section of the heart loses its blood supply, leading to a heart attack.
Fortunately, this process can be reversed without drugs and their side effects. Dr. Dean Ornish demonstrated this fact in his landmark study of patients with advanced heart disease. Ornish put a group of patients on a completely vegetarian diet, which was less than 10 percent fat. They were also asked to begin a moderate exercise program—consisting of walking a half hour each day—and were taught relaxation techniques. Patients in this group found that their chest pain disappeared and their cholesterol levels dropped at a rate comparable to that of cholesterol-lowering drugs—but without the side effects. Because the patients felt so much better, they were motivated to stick with this program. The plaques that had been growing in their hearts for decades actually started to dissolve within one year.(3)
A study of more than 29,000 healthy postmenopausal women concluded that those who got a lot of their protein from red meat had a 40 percent greater chance of dying from heart disease within 15 years than those who got most of their protein from other sources; the study also found that women who relied on plant-based protein sources, such as nuts and beans, were 30 percent less likely to die of heart disease than women who ate more meat.(4) The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study in which patients with high cholesterol and at a high risk of heart disease were prescribed a diet rich in soy, fiber, and vegetables; those who stuck to the diet for a year lowered their cholesterol levels by an average of 29 percent.(5)
As Ornish and other researchers have demonstrated, a vegan diet is the best way to reduce cholesterol levels. Plant foods contain no cholesterol, whereas meat, eggs, and dairy products contain high amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat. Also, the high fiber content of a vegan diet helps “wash away” excess cholesterol in the body’s digestive tract; meat, eggs, and dairy products do not have any fiber at all.
What You Can Do
It’s never too late to change your habits and improve your health. For breakfast, enjoy flavored oatmeal, cereal, bagels, or fresh fruit. For lunch, try salads, vegetable-stock soups, or soy-based burgers and hot dogs. For dinner, make spaghetti with marinara sauce instead of meat sauce, bean burritos, or vegetable lasagna (using soft tofu instead of ricotta cheese). Virtually any meat-based dish can be made with vegetables or low-fat soy substitutes that mimic the taste of meat.
The following are some other ways to keep a healthy heart:
- Eat legumes, grains, vegetables, and fruits, and avoid meat, eggs, and dairy products.
- Include high-fiber foods in your diet. Whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oats, and vegetables supply fiber, which helps lower cholesterol.
- Avoid dairy products—they contain cholesterol and saturated fat. Calcium can be obtained from vegetables, nuts, and beans.
- Avoid tobacco. Smoking promotes atherosclerosis and robs the body of oxygen.
- Have your blood pressure and cholesterol level checked regularly.
- Exercise regularly. Walking, running, tennis, and other activities that increase the heart rate are helpful.
1) American Heart Association, “Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics, 2009 Update At-A-Glance” 2009.
2) National Institutes of Health, “High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides,” MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia 27 Nov. 2006.
3) Dean Ornish et al., “Can Lifestyle Changes Reverse Coronary Heart Disease?” The Lancet 336 (1990): 129-33.
4) L.E. Kelemen et al., “Association of Dietary Protein With Disease and Mortality in a Prospective Study of Postmenopausal Women,” American Journal of Epidemiology 161 (2005): 239-49.
5) D.J Jenkins et al., “Assessment of the Longer-Term Effects of a Dietary Portfolio of Cholesterol-Lowering Foods in Hypercholesterolemia,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 83 (2006): 582-91.