Young adults usually don’t think about how what they’re eating now will affect them later on, and taste or convenience are probably the main factors affecting their food choices. A new study from the Journal of the American Heart Association shows, however, that eating a plant-centered diet when you’re young results in better heart health when you’re older.
The study followed about 5000 participants aged 18 – 30 for over 30 years. They were not old what to eat, but their diet was scored according to quality with the highest scores given to nutrient-dense plant-based foods. By the end of the study, the researchers found that those who ate those high scoring foods frequently were 52% less likely to have heart disease in middle age than those who mostly ate the lowest scoring foods. They also found that the participants whose diets improved the most as they got older, eating more plant-based foods instead of less, were 61% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those whose diets got worse and included fewer plant-based foods.
The foods that were considered beneficial and high scoring were fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains. Foods that impacted heart health negatively and were therefore low scoring were fried potatoes, high-fat red meat, salty snacks, pastries, and soft drinks. Neutral foods were refined grains, lean meats, and shellfish. The top scoring 20% in the study made nutritionally rich plant foods the main part of their diet, but they also ate some lean meat like non-fried poultry as well as dairy.
Another mega study from the University of Naples also concludes that the best way to avoid heart disease is to eat whole and plant-based foods while staying away from ultra-processed foods packed with excess salt, sugar and fat. They define ‘whole’ as foods that have not been highly processed and are as close to their natural form as possible (like a baked potato instead of potato chips). These include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, eggs, poultry, and dairy. Most of what you eat should be from plants, but there is flexibility to include some fish, eggs, poultry, and dairy It’s not a requirement to be strictly vegan and eat no animal foods at all. This study also finds that moderate consumption of alcohol, coffee, tea, and chocolate are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. It is also recommended that olive oil be substituted for butter.
As a rule of thumb, aim for having at least 70% of the food you eat be nutritionally rich plant foods and avoid foods and drinks with added sugar, salty snacks, fried foods, and high-fat or processed meats like ham, bacon, or sausage.