The Power of a WFPB Diet to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease
Now that you’ve learned all about a whole-food, plant-based diet in our WFPB Basics series, you may understand how to adopt a WFPB diet, but might not be convinced as to why: I like the way I’ve always eaten, you might be thinking, and I don’t mind vegetables and grains, but I could never give up my steak and cheese! Why abandon the only way of eating I’ve always known?
Well, we’re here to inspire you to transform your health and your life with WFPB eating! In our WFPB Health Benefits series, we’ll be examining the transformative, disease-reversing impact of a WFPB diet on the most common chronic conditions plaguing Western nations. First up? Heart disease.
Heart Disease - an American Epidemic
If you live in the United States, you probably have a close friend or family member suffering from heart disease (or you may even have it yourself). Heart disease is a scourge on American public health: it’s the most common cause of death in the United States, with 647,000 Americans dying from it each year (that’s 1 in every 4 American deaths).18.2 MILLION Americans have Coronary Artery Disease, and someone in the U.S. has a heart attack every 40 seconds. But does it have to be this way? What causes heart disease, and once someone has it, do they have any hope of improvement or even reversal?
For much of modern medical history, the common wisdom was that once someone had heart disease, they had it for life. Coronary Artery Disease, the most common type of heart disease, is caused by atherosclerosis, the gradual buildup of cholesterol and fat in the arteries, which blocks off blood vessels and eventually prevents blood from reaching the heart, leading to chest pains (angina), heart attacks, and often death. While dangerous surgical interventions, including heart bypass surgery, and heart medications, including cholesterol (statin) drugs, have long been prescribed to heart disease sufferers to ward off the deadly end stages of heart disease, in the past, doctors have believed that diet and lifestyle factors could only lower cholesterol by 10-20% - not nearly enough to prevent or alleviate chronic heart disease.
Wait, You CAN Reverse Heart Disease?
However, the outlook of heart disease patients changed with two landmark studies showing the power of a low-fat, plant-based diet to improve and even reverse key markers of heart disease. In the first study, Dr. Dean Ornish studied the effect of intensive lifestyle changes (a 10% fat, vegetarian diet comprised primarily of whole plant foods, regular aerobic exercise, stress management, social support and no cigarettes) on coronary artery disease markers in patients with moderate to severe coronary artery disease. After the first year, patients in the experimental group (those who underwent the lifestyle changes) had a 37.2% reduction in LDL cholesterol and a 91% decrease in angina, while a control group prescribed more moderate changes had a 6% decrease in LDL cholesterol, but a 165% increase in angina. Five years after the end of the study, the patients in the experimental group continued to see improvements in their CAD, while CAD among control group members continued to advance, resulting in members of the control group experiencing double the cardiac events compared to members of the experimental group.
While Dr. Ornish’s study demonstrated the promising potential of plant-based diets to improve heart disease, the patients in the study underwent several other lifestyle factors which could have contributed to their improvement: they exercised regularly, managed their stress, quit smoking, and had lots of social support. So how do we know that plant-based diets themselves reverse heart disease? In the second study, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn examined the effects of a strict, low-fat, whole-food, plant-based diet on the heart disease markers of patients with severe, progressive coronary artery disease and found that the heart disease of all study participants who complied with the dietary intervention stopped progressing, and 70% of participants even saw reversal of their heart disease. I guess it is the plants doing the work!
Bring On the Plants!
So how does a whole-food, plant-based diet prevent, alleviate and even reverse heart disease? One of the key contributors to atherogenesis (the buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries) is the impairment of endothelial cells, a vital layer of cells that regulates what goes in and out of the bloodstream. When the endothelium is damaged and can’t keep the “bad stuff” (i.e. fat and cholesterol) out, plaque builds up in the arteries, and CAD goes on a rampage. WFPB diets have a head start on standard American (SAD) diets because they lack meat, dairy, eggs, and processed foods, which are the most common sources of the saturated fat and cholesterol that contribute to arterial plaque buildup. When there’s less fat and cholesterol for the endothelium to keep out, it’s going to have an easier time doing its job.
However, WFPB diets are also rich in polyphenols, a class of plant compounds most concentrated in fruits and vegetables (especially leafy green vegetables) with antioxidant properties that have an inverse association with a variety of common chronic diseases, including heart disease. Increased polyphenol consumption is associated with a decreased risk of CAD and with improvements in multiple endothelial markers, including decreases in arterial inflammation and oxidative stress. So, a WFPB diet doesn’t just cut your consumption of contributors to heart disease - whole plant foods themselves help to repair existing damage and improve endothelial regulation. No wonder so many patients in Dr. Esselstyn’s study actually reversed their disease!
Ok, I’m Convinced. What Next?
Convinced that going WFPB is the best thing you can do for your heart health? If you have heart disease or heart disease risk factors, or if you are on any medications, always check with your doctor before making any dietary or lifestyle changes! (We make great food, but we don’t provide medical advice!) However, under medical supervision, a move toward a WFPB lifestyle should get you well on your way to better heart health! The patients in Dr. Esselstyn’s study underwent extremely strict dietary interventions (a 100% whole-food, plant-based, less than 10% calories from fat diet), so mileage from more moderate plant-based interventions may not match up to his patients’ results, but the patients in Dr. Ornish’s study weren’t even 100% plant-based (they ate a low-fat vegetarian diet), so combined with other healthy lifestyle factors (it wouldn’t be wisest to think you can start smoking and compensate with a WFPB diet), even moderate interventions can be beneficial in the fight to prevent and reverse heart disease!
Here’s to happy and healthy WFPB living!