Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+ Join today!.
Here’s a heart-grabbing statistic: the World Health Organization estimates that cardiovascular disease causes approximately 17.5 million deaths per year, worldwide.
That’s the bad news. The good news, especially for vegetarians, is that simply exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating smart can prevent 80 percent of cardiovascular disease. “Whether or not you get heart disease is dramatically influenced by the food choices you make,” says Ann G. Kulze, MD, author of Dr. Ann’s 10 Step Diet. “There is solid data that shows vegetarians have a much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than meat eaters.”
In addition to ruling out many of the saturated animal fats that raise cholesterol levels and clog arteries, a well-balanced vegetarian diet pumps your body full of the heart-healthy nutrients found in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and other good-for-you foods. Here’s a handy guide to getting what you need, plus a collection of easy recipes to help you do it.
1. Potassium “High blood pressure is perhaps the single greatest contributor to the development of heart disease,” says Kulze. Scientists agree that a diet high in the essential mineral potassium is associated with lower blood pressure levels. Potassium lowers blood pressure by countering the effect of excess sodium and by aiding in the transmission of nerve impulses and promoting normal muscle function, both of which are vital for optimal heart and blood vessel function, explains Kulze.
Find it in: Potatoes, bananas, tomatoes, dark leafy greens, prunes, soybeans, lima beans, pumpkin seeds, avocado, almonds
2. Carotenoids Thanks to their fat solubility and potent antioxidant properties, these plant chemicals (which give fruits and veggies their red, yellow, and orange hues) are a major force in the fight against heart disease. Evidence suggests they interact with bad LDL cholesterol, preventing it from oxidizing and sticking to artery walls. According to a study published in 2004 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women with higher levels of carotenoids in their blood had a 34 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Find them in: Watermelon, kale, carrots, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers
3. Flavonoids Both oxidation and inflammation are involved in the development of cardiovascular disease. “But thanks to their potent antioxidative and anti-inflammatory activity, flavonoids pack a powerful one-two punch against heart disease,” says Kulze. In particular, this large class of plant chemicals keeps the lining of the arteries (endothelial cells) flexible, which improves blood flow and reduces blood clotting. In a 2001 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, researchers reported that a 7.5-milligram increase in catechin (the flavonoid compounds found in tea and cocoa) intake resulted in a 20 percent reduction in heart disease mortality risk.
Find them in: Cocoa, dark chocolate, green tea, red wine, extra virgin olive oil, pomegranates, apples
4. Soluble fiber According to a 19-year survey that examined the effects of fiber intake on heart attacks in about 10,000 adults, those who ingested the most soluble fiber had a 12 percent reduction in coronary heart disease events. So what gives soluble fiber its heart-healthy properties? “It combines with water in the GI tract to form a gelatinous mass that ‘sponges up’ cholesterol, diminishing its absorption and escorting it out of the body,” Kulze explains. “It also slows down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrate foods, giving rise to lower and more stable blood glucose and insulin levels, which has favorable effects on metabolism and arterial health.”
Find it in: Whole grains such as oats and barley; beans; okra; Brussels sprouts
5. Omega-3 fatty acids Research continues to confirm that omega- 3 fatty acids, a class of polyunsaturated fats, play a key role in heart health. “Omega-3s give rise to anti-inflammatory molecules known as resolvins and protectins, both of which ward off blood clots that can trigger stroke and heart attack,” explains organic chemist Shane Ellison, author of The Hidden Truth about Cholesterol Lowering Drugs. Also, in a 2005 Brazilian report that reviewed 159 studies of the effects of omega-3 fatty acids, soluble fibers, and phytosterols on heart health, scientists established that omega-3 fatty acids lower triglyceride levels, a risk factor for heart disease. Researchers also found that they increase good HDL cholesterol, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and author of The Flexitarian Diet.
Find them in: Flaxseed; flax oil; walnuts; soy; canola oil; small, dark leafy greens such as watercress, arugula, purslane
6. B vitamins (folate, B6) Elevated levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood, are associated with risk of coronary artery disease and stroke. B vitamins folate and B6 work in concert to metabolize or break down homocysteine. Harvard’s famous nurses’ health study showed a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in women who regularly used multivitamins (a major source of folic acid and vitamin B6) and also in those with high dietary intake of vitamin B6 and folic acid. In another study, reported in the journal Circulation, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio found a link between low blood levels of vitamin B6 and folic acid and an increased risk of atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attacks and stroke.
Find them in: Fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, potatoes, bananas, sunflower seeds Quinoa-Stuffed PeppersSweet Potato Salad with Apple and AvocadoTempeh au VinBrussels Sprouts with Walnuts and Dried CranberriesBanana-Flax Breakfast MuffinsThe Heart-Healthiest Chocolate Chip Cookies in the World