What is it about whole plant foods that make them good for us?
Over the last few years, there has been a large amount of conflict surrounding countless diets and foods within nutrition and health. The one area that is consistently in agreement is fruits and veggies (1, 2, 3, 4,). Just increasing fruits alone can reduce cardiovascular disease risk by 11% (5). The more we eat the better (6), and this has been shown time and time again in research as well as public health promotion campaigns such as 'eat your 5 a day.' Consequently, it is logical that a well-planned balanced diet making this element the focal point will be beneficial. We aim to explore why that might be, what diets attempt to follow this theme and how to actually go about it.
I wish deep-fried chicken and BBQ ribs were the healthiest foods on the planet, but they’re not. In our 'Diet vs heart disease,' page there was a clear theme in what type of diet has the most impact on the 4 major heart health risk factors. You guessed it, it’s plants. Time and time again research points towards plant-based diets such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) (7) and Mediterranean diets (8, 9) as heart health-promoting.
Why are plant-focused diets more beneficial to health? Well, it all comes down to the package the food comes in. The difference between the package of whole plant foods and those of animal origin is that although there are many nutritious elements to animal foods, they come with an array of other factors that impact our health negatively.
Every element of whole plant foods are generally health-promoting. Why source your nutrients from other areas, when you can get almost every mineral and vitamin you need from whole plant foods whilst eating a package which is helpful rather than harmful.
For example, if you were looking for a new savings account, imagine there was one with an incredibly high-interest rate, this would seem very appealing to help grow your money. However, if it came packaged in the fine print with a monstrous monthly fee, overall you may be worse off. That is the case with animal products, great in some areas, but overall don’t have your long term interest at heart.
So what is this whole plant-based package? Whole plants avoid many of the disease-promoting elements that plague animal foods: no cholesterol and trans fats with less saturated fat. Not only that, they pack in more mono and polyunsaturated (the good) fats, fibre, polyphenols and other health-boosting phytonutrients which animal products do not (10).
According to some serious scientists, focusing on munching plants can ‘aid in weight loss/maintenance, enhance glycemic control and insulin regulation, reduce blood pressure, improve vascular health and decrease inflammation, thereby lowering coronary heart disease risk’ (11). So a pretty comprehensive list of benefits.
There is strong and consistent evidence supporting the heart health benefits of separate plant-based foods including fruits (12); vegetables (13) nuts (14), legumes (15); whole grains (16); coffee (17); and tea (18).
In comparison, compelling evidence links some animal foods, such as red and processed meat, to higher CVD risk (19-21) possibly due to the cholesterol, trans and saturated fat mentioned above. On top of that, there is evidence indicating that heme iron and nitrates found in animal products also contribute to heart health degradation rather than improvement (22).
Putting this knowledge into practice in an attempt to harness the power of diet, I have created what I hope is a simple graphic below.
As well as diet majorly impacting 4 of the biggest risk factors for the worlds biggest killer of men and women (cardiovascular disease) we explored how 5 million lives can be saved by changing just 3 elements of diet in our 'Diet vs heart disease' page. So we know diet has a huge impact on our health, which is just one reason for why it's vital to take a considered and thoughtful approach to what we put on our plates.
Plants generally come in a complete, health-promoting package when compared to most animal products. Summarising many research reviews I have created a diagram depicting the overall areas of protection and harm in our diets. The great thing is, ‘even with small reductions in animal foods, plant based diets can have cardiovascular benefits’ (23). So there really is no change too small that will enhance our health.
Processed meats (24), sugar beverages (25), refined grains (26), red meat (27), black tea (28), dairy (29), white meat (27), fish (30), green tea (28), fruit and veg (7), legumes (31), coffee (32), whole grains (26) and nuts (26).
Any movement down the triangle will benefit your heart and overall health. Simply moving from red to white meat is progress, swapping processed meat for low-fat dairy again is a step in the right direction. We often get asked specific questions like, ‘is chicken healthy,’ or ‘is fish good for me.’ The answer isn’t easy, as what would you be replacing it with? That’s where this graph comes in. Replace chicken with legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts or peas) and you are onto a winner my friend, but munching salami instead of our feathery friends would be heart-damaging.
The heart attacks that cause people to collapse at the end of driveways happen due to a specific cause (find out what happened when that happened to me here). Most often, it is a build-up over a lifetime of those high-risk foods, and unhealthy lifestyles. I’ve been on a journey since 2012, amending my diet whilst keeping my GP updated with my lifestyle changes, making my way slowly down the graph to mainly be eating in the lowest sections. It takes time and dedication to create lasting lifestyle change and the speed and areas you choose to change will be a personal decision for you.
For me, nothing tastes as good as being healthy feels and I’m not willing to risk having a life that is shorter or full of disease in place of what I eat. I know what it's like to grow up without a Dad due to a potentially preventable disease and there's no way I'm risking that (find out more about my Dads story here).
You must make the same choice, the first step is understanding the power you have in your future due to the three votes you make every day concerning your health. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If we’re aiming for the lowest sections then that would mean eating essentially a plant-based diet. There are many different interpretations one of which is the Mediterranean diet (MD). It is well known that a MD helps prevent cardiovascular disease (8, 9). This is a predominantly whole food plant-based eating pattern with a little meat, fish alcohol included.
We know food is a package deal and that most whole plant foods provide optimal nutrition. But why lower the unhealthy elements, like in the Mediterranean diet, when we can eliminate them? And what happens when we do? That’s exactly the thought process scientists had when trying strict whole food plant-based diets on heart disease patients, thinking that it would be like a more extreme version of the MD to see if it had a better impact on slowing the progression of the disease.
What they found was shocking. Not only did it slow it down, in many patients it stopped and even reversed it, opening up the clogged arteries of lifelong CVD sufferers (33-37). Potentially saving the lives of many participants. Many Mums, Dads, friends and colleagues.
Now I know what you’re thinking, going strictly whole food plant-based is a bit of a drastic measure to take. However, Dr Esselstyn Jr put it into context beautifully when he said “some people think the ‘plant-based, whole foods diet’ is extreme. Half a million people a year will have their chests opened up and a vein taken from their leg and sewn onto their coronary artery. Some people would call that extreme”.
To add to that, I would consider it ‘extreme’ that 1 in 4 of us in the UK will die from CVD (38), and 1 in 3 worldwide (39), when we have the control to prevent many of these deaths. Heart disease accounts for the majority of these CVD deaths, and combining this diet with some healthy lifestyle practices has lead to a reduction of risk by up to 94% (40-44). When we know that so many of our loved ones will perish due to a largely preventable disease it seems reckless for those of us concerned about our health not to make a change. Or at the very least lead a life with this knowledge in mind so that you can understand the implications of the lifestyle you choose and whether that is worthwhile.
With this information, you have the opportunity to live a life with a lowered risk of severe illness, and a much higher chance of doing the things that bring you the most joy in life, for longer. All of this from what we put on our plate 3 times a day.
In no way is this information meant to replace the advice given by your doctor, always follow the advice of your health professional. Inform your doctor if you are making any large changes to your lifestyle.
As always, don't just take our word for it, have a read through some of the evidence we use which is all referenced below.
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