Plant-based diets are great for your heart — and your gut, too

Cutting back on animal products and eating a plant-based diet can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, according to a recent study. A plant-based diet helps minimize the negative impact of a gut-microbiome correlated with an increased risk of heart disease. The research highlights one of the many benefits of vegetarianism in a time when the demand for meat substitutes is soaring.

The Importance of Gut Microbiota

Microbes in the body’s gut microbiota have an essential role in functions like metabolism and nutrient absorption. When gut bacteria digest nutrients from animal products, this results in the formation of a gut microbiota known as trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO has been linked to an increased risk for both heart disease and heart attack, scientists say. Sustaining a plant-based diet has been shown to decrease the amount of TMAO in the body.

Significance of Diet and Your Heart

Scientists in the study examined blood samples from a pool of 760 women ranging in age from 30 to 55 years old. Participants were examined as part of the Nurses’ Health Study, a planned cohort study of 121,70 registered nurses. Data was collected on dietary habits, physical activity, and other demographic information. Researchers then analyzed the plasma concentrations of TMAO from two blood samples taken 10 years apart.

A plant-based diet helps minimize the negative impact of a gut-microbiome correlated with an increased risk of heart disease. (Photo by Jasmin Schreiber on Unsplash)

The final analysis showed 380 cases of coronary heart disease and 380 cases without. Risk for CHD was measured by monitoring changes in the body’s TMAO levels during the follow-up period. Women who did not follow a healthy diet had higher concentrations of TMAO, thereby increasing their risk for heart disease and heart attack.

Women who had the highest levels of TMAO had a shocking 67% greater risk of CHD. “Diet is one of the most important modifiable risk factors to control TMAO levels in the body,” says the study’s senior author Lu Qi, MD in a statement. The study is the first of its kind to explore whether long-term changes in TMAO levels are associated with CHD and whether a change in diet can modify the risk.

A Promising Future

The initial blood sample collection revealed no differences in TMAO levels between people with CHD and control participants. Yet, the second blood sample obtained ten years later, revealed significantly greater TMAO levels among women with CHD. “The findings of the study provide further evidence for the role of TMAO as a predictive biomarker for heart disease and strengthens the case for TMAO as a potential intervention target in heart disease prevention,” says Paul A. Heidenreich, MD, MS, professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

There are clear limits within the study that need further research. All participants were women and worked in the healthcare field. The study’s authors support the initiative for more research to confirm the findings in a more diverse pool of participants of different sexes and professional occupations.

Find this study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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