The vegan diet may be the yoga of the 21st century — a once-freaky practice that is spilling into the mainstream.
Cookbooks, news articles and attention-getting signs at grocery stores tout the benefits of eating only plant-based foods. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the physician and CNN journalist, went so far as to declare that an animal-free (and oil-free) diet makes the human heart “heart-attack proof.”
Former President Bill Clinton is now a vegan and says that he has lost weight and is protecting his health after quadruple bypass and stent surgeries in recent years.
Such high-profile testimonials, combined with strong medical evidence, might have many people considering veganism, which involves no meat, no diary, no fish, not even honey, as a prescription for heart health. Clinton, after all, is famous for his love of fast food and fried chicken, and if he can do it, maybe anybody can.
But simply eating more plants, rather than eating only plants, may be a path that more people would stay on, some doctors and nutritionists say.
“For most people it’s probably easier said than done,” says Dr. Sreenivas Gudimetla, cardiologist at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. “Clinton has his own cooks and chefs making meals adhering to the vegan diet, meals that are very palatable.”
If the change to vegan is difficult to keep up, people might think eating heart-healthy is impossible. “It’s hard to enjoy yourself because you’re so limited in what you can eat and it can be pretty bland unless you spice it right,” he says. “It’s so extremely limited, to the point where it’s almost no fun going out to dinner.”
Thousands of happy vegans might take issue with that idea. But Lona Sandon, professor of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern Medical Center and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, agrees that a vegan diet can be daunting for most people raised on an American-style cuisine.
“When it starts interrupting your ability to have friendships, when you can’t go out to dinner with friends because they don’t have a vegan item on the menu, or you can’t participate in a potluck, it gets to the point where it affects socialization,” she says.
These experts, like most, know well that diet is an important defense against heart disease, and that the problem is critical. Each year 785,000 Americans have a first heart attack, and another 470,000 who have already suffered at least one will have another, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By contrast, in areas of the world where people eat mostly plants, heart disease is hardly known, researchers say.
Clinical and survey studies also consistently show that restricting animal products in diet can improve cholesterol levels and lower rates of heart disease, and experts agree that a strict vegan diet is heart-healthy.
Whether you are determined to become a vegan or otherwise want to greatly alter something as ingrained as daily eating, a nutritionist can help you understand your current habits and how to change them, Sandon says. There are now many cookbooks and websites (see accompanying list) that help make vegan and other vegetarian fare quite enjoyable, and that provide information and cheerleading as you make the changes.
“If you’re going to give up meat, then you’d better start eating more beans and legumes and nuts and seeds,” Sandon says. “You need to eat a good variety of plant-based foods to make sure you’re getting all the essential amino acids and iron.”
It’s possible to overdo, even as a vegan. Gudimetla says nuts and seeds, like anything with a high fat content, are some of the most enjoyable vegan treats, and some people eat too many. “You shouldn’t really eat more than a handful a day,” he says.
Adhering strictly to a vegan label is not the only approach to a healthy heart, say Gudimetla and Sandon. Aim, they say, for making significant changes to be more healthy that will still allow you to enjoy life.
“I tell my patients, it’s an 80/20 rule,” Gudimetla says. “I myself now have the habit of eating healthy every day, most of the time, and occasionally I indulge. People do need to realize that heart disease is the number one killer of everybody in this country — exceeding cancers, accidents and infections. I have to commend the breast cancer societies for really getting the message out about their cause, but heart disease kills far more people than breast cancer and other conditions combined.”
Some people are genetically prone to some factors in heart disease, such as high cholesterol levels, but moving toward a plant-based diet can help them, too, Gudimetla says.
“We can’t control family history, so we have to focus on the things we can control,” Gudimetla says. Medications might be part of the solution, he says, but diet and exercise must be in the mix. “Start now, eating low-fat, low-cholesterol, lots of vegetables and fruits, limit red meat. I recommend going on a walk at a brisk pace for 30 minutes every day. You can do that.”
Daphne Howland is a freelance writer in Portland, Maine.