Women's Heart Advisor January 2013 Issue

Declaring a Vegan Diet for Your Heart Health

Plant-based diets are beneficial, but require essential nutrients.

Many meat lovers can’t imagine a life without burgers and barbecue, but even former president Bill Clinton who is known for his love of beef, recently converted to a vegan plan, the strictest form of vegetarian diet. By eliminating red meat, chicken and dairy, Clinton and about one percent of U.S. adults claim that vegetarianism is the key to stellar health—particularly their heart health.

The vegan way of life began making news over 20 years ago when Cleveland Clinic physician Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., MD, began talking about the benefits of a vegetarian diet. While the positive evidence behind a plant-based approach is mounting, it’s important to understand the many variables behind a vegan diet and how to best apply them to your lifestyle, advise Cleveland Clinic Women’s Cardiovascular Center dietary experts.

An eating plan without animal products needs to include adequate protein, calcium, zinc, B12, and iron intake, according to clinical dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. “The American Dietetic Association supports a vegan diet as a completely safe way to meet all of your nutritional needs, but like any diet, if it’s not well-rounded it can put people at risk for nutrient deficiency,” she says.

Full-fledged vegetarians never eat meat, poultry, fish or seafood and honey. This pure approach is different from a lacto-vegetarian diet that allows dairy, and the lacto-ovo vegetarian, who doesn’t eat animal flesh of any kind, but does consume dairy and egg products. Those who eat seafood and no meat, but sometimes dairy and eggs follow a pescatarian diet.

Overall, vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease and cancer, but pursuing a vegan diet to improve heart health should be based on each person’s needs, advises clinical dietitian Katherine Patton, RD, CSSD, LD. “We always encourage a vegetarian approach as a way to manage heart disease, but a patient may start with one meatless meal per day, and increase it over time,” she explained. “I usually paint a clear picture that animal products are the primary source of unhealthy fat that increase cholesterol and one of the biggest components to reduce in your diet.”

A low-fat vegan diet emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods rich in complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain breads, cereals, cooked grains, fruits, and vegetables. Protein in a vegan’s diet comes from plant foods such as beans, legume, lentils, peas, tofu and soy. The emphasis is on heart-healthy fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals.

While vegetarian diets can be nutritionally sound if carefully planned, it’s important to remember that the approach can be unhealthy if it contains too many calories and/or saturated fats and not enough nutrients. “As with any diet, it’s all about portion control and total lifestyle approach,” advises Zumpano.