Eat Your Way to a Stronger Heart

More greens, please! How a plant-based diet can help protect against a serious type of heart disease

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

In case you needed another reason to eat your veggies: A plant-based diet can significantly reduce the risk of heart failure, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. Nearly 6 million adults in the U.S. have the condition.

Researchers analyzed data that followed more than 16,000 healthy adults aged 45 and older for nine years, evaluating five different diet patterns, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. They found that those who ate the most produce, beans, and fish were 41% less likely to be hospitalized for heart failure.

However, those whose diets were highest in fried and processed foods and sweetened drinks (what they called a “Southern diet”) were 72% more likely to develop the condition. The scientists pulled data from a huge population-based, longitudinal study called the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (like heart failure, stroke is another dangerous form of cardiovascular disease).

One thing to note: When researchers controlled for other factors, like body-mass index, waist circumference, and hypertension, the association between Southern diet and heart failure was no longer scientifically significant. According to researchers, that means it’s possible that the Southern diet pattern boosts heart-failure risk indirectly. For example, people who eat more fried and processed foods may be more likely to carry extra abdominal fat or be obese, both of which increase heart-failure odds.

Beyond diet and obesity, other known risk factors for heart failure include:

  • Certain chronic conditions, like coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes

  • Heart attacks (learn the symptoms here)

  • Smoking (these incentives can help you quit!)

  • Not getting enough exercise — according to the American Heart Association, healthy adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity throughout the week. That means activities like brisk walking, mowing the lawn, or light biking.

The benefits of plant-based diets

It’s no wonder those who ate the most produce had lower heart-failure risk: Many plant-based diets, such as the DASH and Mediterranean diets, are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals that help reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol, according to Harvard Health. They also help reduce the risk of diabetes by helping you maintain a healthy weight, another protection against heart disease.

Want to eat more produce, beans, whole grains, and fish for the sake of your heart (and the rest of your body)? Here are some ideas to get you started, per Harvard Health:

  • Become a part-time vegetarian: At lunch and dinner, try to fill half of your plate with veggies. Choose colorful options, like carrots, spinach, and bell peppers to get a variety of nutrients. Consider skipping meat altogether at least one to two days a week.

  • Make meat a side dish: Try to shift your mindset — instead of having meat as the centerpiece of your meal, consider making it a garnish or side, with a plant-based food as the main event. If you are going for meat, try to avoid red meat, which is known to up heart disease risk.

  • Rethink dessert: Go for a delicious peach or some juicy sliced mango with chili powder. Save that slice of cake for a once-in-while treat.

  • Try a whole-grain breakfast: Drop the chocolate croissant and instead opt for steel-cut oatmeal with fresh fruit. Whole grains are a heart-healthier option than sweet breakfast foods.

  • Choose healthy fats: Olive oil, nuts, nut butters, and avocados are packed with healthy fats known to boost heart health.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at