A healthy vegetarian or plant-based diet is a way of eating that emphasizes on a higher intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pulses and nuts and a lower or zero intakes of animal-based foods (lamb, pork, chicken etc). The important message here is a plant-based diet can also be unhealthy if rich in refined grains (like white rice, white bread and maida products) and deficient in fruits and veggies.
Multiple studies have shown that eating more plant-based healthy foods reduces the risk of incidence and severity of cardiac disorders and protects the heart mainly because they contain zero dietary cholesterol, low saturated fat and more fibre. However, overconsumption of vegetable oils (more than 5 teaspoons per day), seeds and nuts and refined sugars can lead to abnormal blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
On the other hand, red meats and organ meats are rich in saturated fat and cholesterol so should be avoided or kept to a minimum. Fish, especially oily fish, are rich in healthy fats and can be included in your diet provided they are not deep-fried.
There are different types of plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean diet, the vegan diet, the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). These diets emphasize on certain foods that are associated with heart disease eg. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, legumes, and beans and a minimal amount of low-fat dairy and non-vegetarian products (fish, egg, lean meat, chicken).
Health benefits of plant-based diet:
- Plant-based fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins and minerals
- Fruits and vegetables consist of antioxidants, which helps to control cell damage and the inflammation in arteries
- Proteins from non-vegetarian foods consist of increased saturated fat whereas from plant sources (nuts, pulses, legumes) has only a minimal amount of saturated fat
- A plant-based diet is also beneficial for individuals with high blood pressure and high cholesterol as it offers all the essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals for optimal health, and are higher in phytonutrients (Carotenoids, Flavonoids).
- Healthy and balanced plant-based plate are essential to control many disorders like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease and cancers.
Remember, a plant-based diet is not always healthy, particularly as
- Deep-fried and preserved foods
- Excessive saturated fat, sugar and salt from any source
- Plant-based fast foods and snacks like veggie burgers, pizza and fries and chips.
If you have been eating non-vegetarian food regularly and a plant-based diet is difficult to follow for you, then begin small. A moderate change in your diet, such as lowering your meat intake by one to two servings per day and replacing it with legumes or nuts as your protein source, can have a lasting positive impact on your health.
Thus a vegetarian diet is healthy, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Like any diet, a vegetarian diet should be part of an overall healthy lifestyle, which includes adequate exercise and excludes smoking and drinking excess alcohol. It is not necessary to go full vegetarian or vegan to get the best heart health benefits. The focus should be on eating the right foods, avoiding the wrong kind and moderating the intake of healthier animal products (egg, country chicken and fish). As a purely vegetarian diet is low in iron, vitamin D, B12and calcium, the inclusion of 1-2 servings of animal sources or plant-based foods fortified with these essential nutrients helps to overcome these deficiencies.