It’s important to take care of one’s body, and one of the most important aspects to focus on is taking care of your heart—heart disease is the leading killer in the United States for both men and women. There are many contributors to the development of heart disease, but diet (primarily animal-based protein) is at the top of this list. Unfortunately, many physicians don’t learn about nutrition during medical school, leading to a less than ideal medical approach to preventing and treating heart disease. Luckily, we can look to a small group of healthcare professionals who are leading the plant-based movement by understanding the power of food. Here are our five favorite heart-healthy tips from the experts.
1. Lifestyle changes are paramount
On a bold mission to prevent one million heart attacks, Joel Kahn, MD (aka, “America’s Healthy Heart Doc”) is a seasoned cardiologist who has written extensively on the topic of heart health and diet. He points out that six basic factors—including smoking cessation, increasing physical activity, and a healthy diet—can reduce heart disease risk by 92 percent. He also promotes the concept of “Vitamin L” (the “L” is for lifestyle”) as the key to preventing early death. Finally, Kahn highlights four foods that are particularly good at reversing artery disease—garlic, pomegranates, bergamot (a citrus fruit), and green tea, as each offers unique, heart-protecting properties.
2. Don’t believe the protein myth
As a plant-based doctor and professor at New York University School of Medicine, Michelle McMacken, MD writes about the myths doctors often promote regarding protein. As an example, the belief that we need more protein (and that protein always comes from animals) and less carbohydrates to get lean are misleading and dangerous. In fact, McMacken sites research that low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets (as well as eating a lot of dairy) are actually associated with “heart disease and early death.” She reinforces Kahn’s point that lifestyle changes are the best approach to dealing with the root causes of heart disease rather than pills, which simply address symptoms.
3. Fish is not a health food, but plants are
Neal Barnard, MD and the experts at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) have been leaders in the plant-based movement for decades and do not back down from making bold statements. While the mainstream likes to repeat the false notion that fish is a health food, PCRM counters these “alternative facts” with four important points: 1. Fish is high in cholesterol 2. Fish is high in saturated fat (these are two nutrients with a strong association to heart disease) 3. Fish oil supplements’ effect on heart health is still inconclusive, while some studies have shown that it can increase your risk of diabetes and cancer 4. Fish are full of toxins (such as mercury) that are dangerous to our health. So, if you’re looking for foods that reduce your risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, then it’s time to look toward plants, not fish.
4. Get your daily greens
Leafy greens are one of the healthiest foods on the planet, especially for your heart. This affordable superfood group is packed with heart-healthy nutrients including nitrates that are linked to lower blood pressure and the prevention and reversal of heart disease. Kayli Dice, registered dietitian at Lighter, suggests loading up on leafy green vegetables every chance you get. Some of her favorite ways include a handful of frozen greens in a morning smoothie, baked into kale chips, or as sandwich fixings wrapped up in chard or collard leaves such as this tasty BLT in a Collard Wrap.
5. Eat foods high in antioxidants, fiber and potassium
Michael Greger, MD offers the most robust (and entertaining) collection of plant-based research on the internet, organized by topic and in video format. On his site, nutritionfacts.org, Greger provides information regarding heart disease and diet. As he explains, foods high in antioxidants, fiber, and potassium might be protective against heart disease, especially when they are part of a diet that’s low or void of animal-based food, salt, and excess fat and oil. Instead, a diet full of dark greens, beans, nuts, flax seeds, whole grains, vegetables, and spices can promote a long and healthy life.
Micah Risk is the co-founder and Chief Nourishment Officer at Lighter, a powerful tool that helps the world eat better based on the recommendations of food experts.