For every incremental increase in those scores, the risk of heart disease declined by 19%, on average. The risk of stroke, meanwhile, dropped by 29%.
That was with factors like smoking, body weight, and income and education levels taken into account.
In what may be good news to burger lovers, “plant-based” does not have to mean becoming vegetarian or vegan.
Try filling 70% to 80% of your plate with vegetables, beans, whole grains and the like, said senior researcher David Jacobs, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota.
It’s important to eat those foods “close to the way they’re grown,” Jacobs said — rather than buying heavily processed versions. Variety is also key.
“You want to have a colorful, beautiful plate,” Jacobs said.
Dr. Andrew Freeman, a cardiologist not involved in the study, agreed that a “predominantly plant-based” diet is the way to go for heart health.
“Animal products are not meant to be part of every meal,” said Freeman, who directs cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver.
Instead, he encourages patients to consume a wide range of plant foods, in their “natural form.”
“Eat the avocado rather than avocado oil,” Freeman said.
He cautioned that the new study does not mean saturated fat is meaningless. And if people focus on building a plant-centric diet, Freeman said, they will likely consume fairly low amounts of the fat.
Why are plant-rich diets so heart-friendly? It’s not any single magic ingredient, the researchers said.
Such diets are typically high in fiber, unsaturated fat, and a slew of vitamins and minerals — but the explanation may go beyond those nutrients, according to Jacobs.
Unlike animals, he pointed out, plants boast an array of self-generated chemicals that protect them from the environment. And those so-called bioactive compounds may benefit the humans who eat them.
Choi said the researchers also want to study the ways in which different diets affect the gut microbiome — the vast collection of bacteria and other microbes that dwell in the gut and perform numerous vital functions.