No Meat = Healthy Heart: Confused Yet?

We just spoke about a recent study yesterday that showed eating small amounts of meat as a protein-rich food could make for a stronger heart. But now another study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vegetarians had a 32% lower risk of heart disease compared to their meat-eating counterparts. Heart disease is a tricky thing to generalize when it comes to prevention. The rise of genomic sequencing and the genetic testing capabilities that have come out of that are increasing the knowledge around individual risk factors and preventative qualities. 

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There's no doubt that improving the way we eat can prevent America's deadliest disease. Many previous findings have shown that eating a lot of dairy, eggs and meat increases the risk of cardiovascular problems by a lot. What many experts are recommending now is consuming a plant-based diet such as nuts, whole grains, beans, fruit and vegetables is associated with sharply reduced risk. 

Food isn't the only preventative medicine for heart disease. Some believe it can even cure the disease. In 1998, Dr. Dean Ornish shocked the medical community with his signature diet which is continuously ranked at the top for heart healthy eating today. Those that ate this way with a plant-based diet reversed their risk of heart disease. Patients essentially cured themselves by changing what they ate and other lifestyle changes. His findings along with others after him, show that this treatment approach comes with only positive side effects including lower cholesterol levels, lasting weight loss and stable blood pressure along with a lower risk of diabetes. 

Dr. Ornish isn't the only one prescribing plant-based diets. Kaiser Permanente, the country's largest HMO, advises that "physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients," especially those with cardiovascular disease. Current president of the American College of Cardiology, Dr. Kim Williams, adopted a vegan diet after witnessing a patient cure her heart disease by dropping all animal products. He now helps his other patients do the same.

Preventing and reversing heart disease with diet isn't neuroscience. The real question is how -- how do we make the switch from the standard American diet to a heart-happy diet? How do we overhaul our meals without overhauling our lives?

Well, the good news is heart healthy eating has never been easier. Think veggies burgers, gourmet salads, quinoa and the like. Restaurant menus and grocery stores are even getting more veggie-friendly and the hope is America's dietary guidelines will follow in that path. 

Remember, small changes matter. Eat vegetarian or vegan for breakfast for a week. Dive into a vegan cookbook from the library. Keep the foods and basics you already love in your diet and add a new ingredient here and there. Replace beef with beans in chili, drop the chicken for chickpeas and bring on the almond milk. When eating out, try different cuisines such as Mexican, Indian and Thai.

Tens of millions of Americans have moved from meat-centered meals to ones rich in vegetables, grains, beans and other plant-based foods. Do the same, and you'll shield yourself from heart disease and a host of other health problems. As a bonus, you'll also do your part to alleviate animal suffering and lighten your environmental footprint.