When it comes to preventing atherosclerosis — the buildup of a fatty material called plaque in arteries throughout your body, which can lead to heart disease — a broadly plant-based diet appears to be the best dietary strategy, according to new research published in the journal Cardiovascular Research.
The latest analysis aimed to be a comprehensive review, looking at a wide range of previously published studies on diet and cardiovascular outcomes. Instead of looking at whether any particular foods were linked to heart health or disease, it looked for broad patterns in what people ate — such as mostly plant-based or animal-based foods, or higher or lower levels of salt. The results aren’t surprising in the least to anyone who has followed nutrition research, and reinforce many dietary recommendations that health experts have been making for years.
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Plant foods, fermented dairy linked to cardiovascular benefits
Overall, there researchers noted, the results across multiple studies were highly consistent when it came to dietary patterns that appeared to contribute to, or protect against, atherosclerosis. For healthy adults, benefits were seen from a lower intake of salt and foods of animal origin, and a higher intake of plant-based foods including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and other legumes, and nuts. Similar benefits were seen from replacing butter and other animal fats, or tropical oils like palm or coconut oil, with olive oil and other plant-based oils containing mostly unsaturated fats.
A few notable, if not surprising, patterns also emerged from the analysis, as noted in a press release announcing the results. The researchers found that when it comes to meat and poultry, not all foods are equal — while red meat and processed meat (such as cold cuts, bacon, and sausage) were linked to a higher cardiovascular risk, a moderate intake of poultry (not including processed forms) appeared to be neutral, having no effect on cardiovascular risk. Another finding was that when eaten in moderate amounts, there was no cardiovascular benefit from consuming low-fat rather than full-fat dairy foods. What’s more, consuming small quantities of cheese and yogurt — three 50-gram (1.8-ounce) servings of cheese per week, and 200 grams (7.1 ounces) of yogurt per day — was linked to cardiovascular benefits, presumable because these dairy foods are fermented and contain beneficial bacteria.
Based on the available evidence, the researchers recommended limiting red meat to two 100-gram (3.5-ounce) servings per week, and replacing any additional read meat in your diet with up to four 180-gram (6.3-ounce) servings of beans and other legumes as a source of protein. They also advised consuming fruits and vegetables in abundance, at levels as high as 400 grams (14.1 ounces) per day of each, or 800 grams (1.8 pounds) total. A handful of nuts per day, or about 30 grams (1.1 ounces), is also recommended.
When it comes to beverages, the researchers found that consuming up to three daily cups of coffee or tea appears to have cardiovascular benefits. Alcohol, on the other hand, should be limited to one beer per day, or two glasses of wine for men and one glass of wine for women.
“There is no indication that any food is poison in terms of cardiovascular risk,” emphasized lead researcher Gabriele Riccardi, a professor at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy, in the press release. “It’s a matter of quantity and frequency of consumption.”