Is a vegetarian diet good for your heart? Vegetarian Heart Health: What are the benefits and risks? That depends a lot on not only staying away from meat but filling your diet with nutritious plant-based foods, research shows. Remember, just because something is strictly vegetarian or plant-based does not automatically make it healthy. There are also certain nutrients and vitamins that vegetarians might be deficient of.
If you focus on a healthy plant-based diet and account for the nutrients and vitamins you need, you can see a ton of benefits. That includes a decreased risk of heart disease, low blood pressure, and lower risk of diabetes.
Vegetarian Heart Health: What are the benefits and risks?
Lower Risk of Heart Disease
Multiple studies have shown that vegetarians are less likely to have heart disease. One analysis combined five studies, which altogether included over 76,000 participants. The studies showed that vegetarians were less likely to die of heart disease by 25%.
Another study from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition found that vegetarians were 19% less likely to die of heart disease.
One study from Oxford (published in the British Medical Journal) examined the effects of a vegetarian diet on various aspects of health. The study had over 48,000 participants who responded to questions about lifestyle, diet, and health between 1993 and 2001. At the beginning of the study, none of the participants had a history of stroke, heart attack, or angina (chest pain). Participants’ medical records were observed until 2016. By then, there had been 2,820 cases of coronary heart disease (CAD).
The good news? The risk of CAD was 22% lower among those who followed a vegetarian diet.
One study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health saw a potential increased risk of heart disease from a vegetarian diet. However, they differentiated between a healthy and unhealthy vegetarian diet. Those who were eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains were less likely to have heart disease than those with a diet of refined carbs, potatoes, and sweets.
We can’t stress it enough—a vegetarian diet is only beneficial when your food choices are healthy ones.
But, when you do eat a heart-healthy diet, you can reduce your risk of heart disease by up to 25% percent. That’s a statistic that cannot be ignored. A vegetarian diet can help your heart in other ways, too. For example, it can help you lower your cholesterol.
Cholesterol comes in two forms—LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein and comes from trans and saturated fats. HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, comes from healthy fats.
A study published in Cambridge University Press examined the effects of vegetarian and vegan diets on cholesterol. It included over 6,700 men and women. The results showed that a vegan diet lowered HDL cholesterol for both males and females. (Remember, HDL is “good” cholesterol.) However, an ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet lowered LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), especially in male subjects.
By sticking with a vegetarian diet, you can lower your LDL cholesterol. Vegans may want to be sure to include foods with that healthy fat—including avocados, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.
Reduce Blood Pressure
Looking for a way to reduce your blood pressure? Look no further than a vegetarian diet. Research has shown a correlation between vegetarianism and lower blood pressure.
High blood pressure can lead to serious health conditions, including heart disease, heart attack, mental decline, and stroke. One way you can lower your blood pressure is by reducing meat intake. Harvard Health recommends no more than one serving of red or processed meat per week to lower blood pressure. Whether you become strictly vegetarian, or simply cut down on red meat, you can see blood pressure benefits.
A review from JAMA International Medicine looked at 258 studies on vegetarianism and blood pressure. These were controlled trials as well as observational studies with a total of 311 participants. In each study, a vegetarian diet was associated with lower blood pressure.
Some vegetarian foods are great for lowering blood pressure naturally. These are foods with dietary nitrates, l-arginine, or l-citrulline. They open and expand your blood vessels, improve circulation, and lower blood pressure. Dietary nitrate foods include beetroot, garlic, citrus fruits, nuts, and leafy greens. L-arginine is often found in meat, but you can also get it from pumpkin seeds, soybeans, peanuts, and dairy. Watermelon, nuts, and legumes are great sources of l-citrulline. Supplements are also an option. You can find beetroot, l-arginine, and l-citrulline in Heartbeet Complete.
Like all the other benefits (perhaps even more), losing weight depends on the types of vegetarian foods you eat. Again, there are plenty of vegetarian foods that are not very healthy—soda, cheese pizza, etc. But a nutritious vegetarian has been known to help people lose weight.
One review looked at twelve randomized controlled trials that examined the effects of vegetarianism on weight. This included 1151 subjects who followed either a vegetarian diet or non-vegetarian diet. After 18 weeks, the groups following the vegetarian diet lost significantly more weight.
Avoid Type 2 Diabetes
Diabetes can increase your risk of heart disease and other conditions later in life. This is because high blood sugar damages blood vessel walls. But a vegetarian diet may be able to help.
One study was done observing the habits and health of Seventh-day Adventists. Members of this religion avoid smoking and drinking, and about 40% of are vegetarian. After examining diet and health factors, researchers found that vegetarians had a 50% lower chance of developing diabetes as non-vegetarians.
A women’s health study from Harvard also revealed a link between red meat (including processed meats like bacon and hot dogs) and diabetes. Adjusting for BMI, total calorie intake, and exercise, the study found that vegetarians were much less likely to have diabetes.
A vegetarian diet not only helps you prevent diabetes. It can also help people who are diabetic. Diabetic Medicine published a study that showed that a vegetarian diet improves insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes.
If you worry about diabetes, are at risk, or are currently diabetic, consider a vegetarian or low-meat diet. Talk with your doctor about what diet is best for you.
Just as there are benefits, vegetarianism comes with potential risks. Most people first think of getting enough protein, but there are so many protein-rich plant-based foods (and other animal by-products for lacto-ovo-vegetarians) that protein really isn’t the main issue.
Before we dive in, it should be noted that these risks often occur from simply not eating healthy despite being vegan or getting the recommended amounts of certain vitamins.
May Increase Risk of Stroke
The same Oxford study that showed a vegetarian diet can decrease risk of Coronary Artery Disease also stated that vegetarians had a higher risk of stroke. Over the course of the study (which started in 1993 and gathered data until 2016) there were 1,072 cases of stroke.
Though the risk for heart disease was lower among vegetarians by 22%, they also had a 20% increased risk of stroke. The trouble is, researchers could not conclude why.
Some speculated that it might be due to lower cholesterol (which increases risk some kinds of stroke) or being deficient in certain vitamins (like vitamin B). Others thought that it might be that people with alternative diets are less likely to seek blood pressure medication, which can lead to stroke.
Because these results are so inconclusive, researchers have prompted vegetarians to not be alarmed. The important thing is to make sure you are eating healthy (not just meatless) and getting the vitamins and nutrients you need.
Could Affect Bone Health
Some worry about the risks of poor bone health, especially women (who are more prone to osteoporosis). This may affect vegans and vegetarians that don’t consume dairy products. Lacto-vegetarians usually get as much calcium as meat-eaters.
Another Oxford study showed that around 75% of vegans were not getting the recommended daily value of calcium and had a higher risk of fractures. But by consuming foods with calcium or supplementing, vegans and non-dairy vegetarians can protect their bones.
Foods with calcium include broccoli, bok choy, kale, and collards. It is also important to consume foods with potassium and magnesium as well as vitamin D and vitamin K. Potassium and magnesium help you retain calcium in your body, and the vitamins fortify your bones.
Getting Enough Vitamins and Minerals
Vegetarians are at risk of being deficient of certain vitamins and minerals. It’s important to include vegetarian or vegan-friendly foods, fortified foods, and supplements in your diet to get the recommended daily intake. By doing so, you can avoid major health complications and reap the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle.
The recommended dietary allowance for protein is .8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. If you multiply your weight in pounds by .36, you can determine how much you need daily. It’s a modest amount; remember this is the minimum amount you need to stay healthy, not necessarily what you are supposed to eat.
Most vegetarians that consume dairy and eggs get the protein they need. For vegans or vegetarians that want to consume more plant-based products, there are other protein-rich sources. These include legumes, nuts, seeds, and wheat.
Most vegetarians get enough calcium if they are consuming dairy products. Other plants with calcium include dark, leafy greens, bok choy, kale, broccoli, almonds, blackstrap molasses, and calcium-fortified foods (some cereals, juices, and tofu). Plant sources of calcium often have a better absorption rate (or bioavailability) than cow’s milk.
Iron is in meat and other plants, but the type of iron found in meat (especially red meat) is easier for your body to absorb. Plant-based iron (called heme iron) is harder to absorb, but can still be found in ….. To facilitate absorption, get plenty of vitamin C. Unfortunately, iron absorption may be disrupted by phytic acid, which is found in whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts. You may also consider a supplement or try to consume iron with fruits and vegetables instead of wheat, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Milk is fortified with vitamin D, which is why non-dairy vegetarians and vegans might not be getting enough. Few foods even contain vitamin D, but the good news is you don’t need to consume anything to get this vitamin. Just spend 20 minutes in direct, midday sunlight every day. Or you can take a vitamin D supplement.
Did you know that vitamin B-12 is only found in animal products? Lacto-vegetarians and ovo-vegetarians should still be able to get their share of vitamin B-12 if they have enough egg and/or dairy products. For those who don’t consume dairy or egg, you can get the vitamin from fortified cereals or soy milk. It is also found in nutritional yeast (which has a cheese-like flavor). You can also take a vitamin B-12 supplement.
Vegetarians and vegans are in danger of being zinc deficient. Zinc is important for your metabolism and immune system. That’s why it is so important to keep your zinc levels up The reason some vegetarians can’t get enough zinc is because many plant sources of zinc also contain other components that don’t let your body absorb it.
Wholegrain breads, cereals, rolled oats, brown rice, nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu and soy products can be great sources of zinc. Make sure those grains are whole—refined grains simply don’t contain enough zinc. The recommended daily value of zinc for vegetarians is 12 mg per day for women and 21 for men.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are often associated with salmon, fish oil, and krill oil. But a vegetarian or vegan may not want to get their omega-3s this way. Fortunately, these are not the only sources of omega-3s. Seafood sources of omega-3s contain fatty acid chains EPA and DHA. But there is another fatty acid chain called ALA that is found in many plants. These include flaxseed, chia seeds, seaweed and algae, edamame, kidney beans, and soybean oil. You can also find ALA omega-3 supplements.
Omega-3s are known to lower triglyceride leves, modestly lower blood pressure, reduce blood clotting, and and reducing inflammation.
The Bottom Line
Vegetarian Heart Health: What are the benefits and risks? A vegetarian diet can be beneficial for many reasons, including reducing blood pressure, fighting diabetes, lowering cholesterol, and decreasing your risk for heart disease. There are risks, many of which come from eating an unhealthy vegetarian or vegan diet and not getting sufficient vitamins and minerals. Stick with eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and protein (plant based or through dairy and egg products). Make sure you are getting sufficient vitamins and minerals. With that, you can reap the reward of a healthy vegetarian lifestyle.