If you’re looking for something tastier than a cholesterol-busting pill to improve your heart health, open up your fridge and go to the vegetable drawer.
New research from Denmark has found that a plant-based diet can have a “really substantial” effect on cutting levels of cholesterol. So substantial, in fact, that it is equivalent to taking a third of the daily dose of drugs, statins, designed for that very purpose.
Cholesterol is a lipid – a type of fat – found in the blood that keeps bones, teeth and muscles healthy. But if too much of the “bad” cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, builds up in blood vessels, it can eventually trigger a heart attack or stroke. Bill Clinton, who had a quadruple heart bypass in 2004, is among those who have lauded the ability of plant-based food to curb cholesterol.
The study, published in the European Heart Journal and based on the results of 30 randomised clinical trials carried out over 40 years, involving a total of 2,400 people, found that vegetarian and vegan diets cut bad cholesterol by 10 per cent and total cholesterol by 7 per cent, compared to the diets of omnivores. The researchers estimate 15 years of a meat free diet could cut the risk of cardiovascular disease by 20 per cent.
Lead author Professor Ruth Frikke-Schmidt, of Denmark’s Rigshospitalet, said: “Importantly, we found similar results across continents, ages, different ranges of body mass index, and among people in different states of health. If people start eating vegetarian or vegan diets from an early age, the potential for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease caused by blocked arteries is substantial.”
Frikke-Schmidt added that the findings did not mean people already taking cholesterol-lowering statins could simply stop eating animal products and throw away their pills. “Statin treatment is superior to plant-based diets in reducing fats and cholesterol levels,” she said. “However, one regimen does not exclude the other, and combining statins with plant-based diets is likely to [result] in an even larger beneficial effect.”