If you’re already vegan, then your diet is more heart-healthy than average. Replacing animal foods and highly refined carbs with whole plants and healthy fats is the proven way to lower cholesterol and reduce risk of heart disease. But a few simple tweaks can make your vegan diet even more protective.
1. Pack your meals with potassium. This mineral can help lower blood pressure (and protect bone health in the bargain). Many plant foods provide potassium, but the best sources are legumes, Swiiss chard, spinach, bananas, orange juice, tomato juice, and tomato sauce. Try to include a few servings of these foods in meals every day.
2. Consider a supplement of omega-3s. Whether or not vegans need supplemental sources of DHA and EPA–the long chain omega-3s usually associated with fish oils–is a subject of ongoing debate. But if you’re at risk for heart disease, it pays to play it safe with a small supplement—derived from algae, which is where fish get their DHA—of about 200 to 300 milligrams several times a week.
3. Enjoy a serving or two of nuts every day. Nuts offer a unique blend of compounds shown to protect heart health, and the research on their benefits is impressive. Small amounts of nuts can even help with weight control. A serving is ¼ cup of whole nuts or 2 tablespoons of nut butter.
4. Watch out for trans fats. Since you’re vegan, your diet is already low in harmful saturated fat and free of cholesterol. But even processed vegan foods can contain small amounts of trans fats, and experts suggest that these fats should be minimized in all diets. It’s easy to do so—just avoid foods that have the words “partially hydrogenated” on the label.
5. Keep the focus on whole foods. Refined carbs could be as harmful to heart health as saturated fat. So skip the white bread and potato chips, and plan most of your carbohydrate intake around whole grains and starchy vegetables.
6. Choose healthy fats. The latest research on heart disease shows that it’s the type of fat you eat that matters, not the amount. Replacing saturated fat with the monounsaturated kind found in nuts, avocados, olive oil and canola oil creates a heart-healthy diet that is easy to stick with. These fats reduce bad LDL-cholesterol without letting protective HDL-cholesterol get too low.
7. Don’t forget your B12 supplement. B12 isn’t just for healthy blood and nerve function; it protects the cardiovascular system, too. Everyone eating a plant-based diet, as well as all people over the age of 50, should aim for 10 to 25 micrograms per day of B12, or 1,000 micrograms a couple of times per week. (The less often you take B12, the more you need, since absorption drops with big doses.)
8. Enjoy soyfoods. If you like soy, it has a role in your heart healthy diet since the protein in soybeans has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Soy isoflavones may also benefit the health of your arteries in other ways that protect against heart disease.
9. Watch your salt intake. A few shakes of iodized salt every day can be helpful for vegans since it’s a great source of iodine. But too much sodium—usually from processed foods—pushes blood pressure up in some people, which raises risk for heart disease. Too much sodium is bad for your bones, too.
10. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. They’re packed with antioxidants, and while the jury is out on whether this really matters for heart health, there is no doubt about the fact that antioxidants are good for you. Get them from food rather than supplements for the best protection.
Image Source: Satoru Kikuchi (via Flickr)