When it comes to developing heart disease there are many factors that can put us at risk: diet, exercise, stress, weight, alcohol consumption, family history, gender, ethnicity and age (1). Some of these we can alter, others we cannot. Luckily diet is one we have control over and small changes can add up to big results in terms of protecting your heart!
When we look at what we should be eating to promote heart health, those who are vegetarian seem to have an advantage over those who eat the Standard American Diet (also known as SAD, a diet focused on processed and animal foods). The largest study ever conducted looking at heart disease rates in vegetarians compared to non-vegetarians pooled the results from five large studies with a combination of 76,000 participants (2). After taking into consideration body weight, alcohol use, education level, exercise, and in most studies, smoking; death from heart disease was approximately 31 percent lower among vegetarian men compared to non-vegetarian men and 20 percent lower among vegetarian women compared to non-vegetarian women. Vegetarians tend to lead healthier lifestyles overall (they smoke less, exercise more and are usually leaner), but even when those factors are controlled, the vegetarian diet has been shown to reduce heart disease risk by about 25 percent (3).
A vegetarian diet seems to have two main advantages in terms of protecting our hearts:
1. Low in saturated fat
2. High in fiber
There is likely one exception to the heart healthy benefits of vegetarian eating that I like to call a “carbatarian” - someone who removes animal protein from their diet but replaces it with carbohydrates such as pasta, bread and rice. Although this diet is likely lower in saturated fat (saturated fat is found mostly in animals foods), and higher in fiber (animal protein contains no fiber) and is being replaced with fiber rich carbohydrates (hopefully they are eating whole grains), it is still missing many of essential building blocks of health: complete proteins, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. When we think of nutrition, we often focus on what are called macronutrients, carbohydrate, protein and fat. However, I would argue that micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals may be even more important.
Therefore, heart health is more than just choosing high fiber and low saturated fat foods. It’s about choosing a variety of whole foods that are minimally processed. Let’s look at the guiding principles of a healthy vegetarian diet and how you can start eating more veggie-centric.
1. Choose a diet based on a variety of plant-based whole foods: Include a variety of minimally processed vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains in your diet. Try a new whole grain like buckwheat, amaranth or quinoa. If you have kids let them choose something from the produce section, they usually pick the most interesting things!
2. Eat seven or more servings of vegetables and fruits per day: Don’t worry, you don’t have to start doing this all at once (unless you want to!). If you don’t usually eat vegetables or fruits with your lunch; add one serving or ½ cup, of vegetables to that meal or increase the amount you eat at meals until vegetables and/or fruits make up half of your plate. If you have a sweet tooth, consider replacing some of your sweet of choice with a piece of fruit a few times a week. I often tell my clients that they don’t have to give up the sweets all at once, simply cut down the portion. For example, instead of having two cookies; have one cookie and a piece of fruit.
3. Enjoy plant-based protein sources: Start with Meatless Monday which means every Monday you enjoy a meal made with a plant protein (see recipe below). Visit the Meatless Monday website: http://meatlessmonday.ca/ for recipes or think of a meal you usually enjoy (that contains meat) and Google its vegetarian version. You will find endless options!
4. Focus on heart healthy fats: When specific foods were investigated for their impact on heart health, nuts reduced the risk of heart disease more than any other food studied (3). Research shows that men and women who eat nuts at least four times a week are almost 40 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those who eat them less than once a week (4, 5). Nuts are a great source of healthy fat and are often found in vegetarian diets due to their protein content. Add ¼ cup (60 ml) of raw or dry roasted, unsalted, nuts to your diet five times per week.
On an end note, some studies have found that a vegan diet may not be as heart protective as a vegetarian diet because it can be low in vitamin B12. Not getting enough B12 from the diet can increase a substance called homocysteine in our bodies which can damage the walls of our arteries. If you are vegan make sure to get enough by eating foods fortified with B12, such as rice beverage, almond beverage or specific types of nutritional yeast. Another option is to consider taking a supplement.
Serves 4-6 people
This recipe is a wonderful Meatless Monday meal. I call it Weeknight Chili because it’s super quick and easy. Even without meat, chili is still delicious and as an added bonus this recipe will make your kitchen smell lovely!
2 tbsp coconut or grape seed oil (good oils to cook with at high heat)
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
1 package of tempeh (a wonderful vegetarian protein source)
2 small or 1 large pepper (red, orange or green), chopped
1 cup of chopped carrots
1 can (28 oz) crushed or chopped tomatoes
1.5 tsp of each cumin and turmeric
Red pepper flakes, to taste
1. In a large saucepan over medium heat add oil, onion, garlic and jalapeno pepper and cook for five minutes.
2. Crumble tempeh with hands, or chop finely, and add to the saucepan and continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring as needed.
3. Add peppers, carrots, tomatoes, cumin, turmeric and red pepper flakes. Mix thoroughly and cover cooking on low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally (the longer you cook the better the flavor!). You many need to add a little more oil to the pan if it appears to be browning.
4. Remove from the stove and enjoy immediately or let cool and keep it in the fridge or freezer for a quick delicious meal.
1. Heart & Stroke Foundation. Heart Disease Prevention and Risk Factors; 2012 [cited 2014 February]. Available from
2. Key TJ, Fraser GE, Thorogood M, Appleby PN, et al. Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70:516s-524s.
3. Melina V, Davis B. Becoming Vegetarian. Canada: Wiley;2003.
4. Albert CM, Gaziano JM, Willett WC, Manson JE. Nut consumption and decreased risk of sudden cardiac death in the Physicians’ Health Study. Arch Intern Med. 2002;162(12):1382-1387.
5. Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, Rimm EB, et al. Frequent nut consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in women: Prospective cohort study. BMJ. 1998;317(7169):1341-1345.