Most people are aware by now that eating plant-based promotes excellent health. But what if you are heading into your senior years and already beginning to suffer the effects of a lifetime of unhealthy eating? Science is revealing that converting to a plant-based diet at any age can indeed generate for you a new lease on life.
Shifting to a nutritious vegetarian diet can provide multiple health benefits even if the diet modification occurs in middle or old age (1,2)
In 2013, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published new findings from the ongoing study known as the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (the EPIC-Oxford Study). For this research, 44,000 participants were followed for almost twelve years. Results disclosed that vegetarians had a 32% lower risk of developing coronary artery disease compared to non-vegetarians. (Coronary artery disease is the accumulation of harmful plaque in the arteries surrounding the heart that supply its oxygen.) These outcomes occurred even in those who had been vegetarian for less than five years (1).
A 2014 study publicized that, in spite of a lifetime of consuming the destructive standard Western diet, risk of death from diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cerebrovascular disease, as well as the incidence of cancer and type-2 diabetes can be significantly lowered simply by transitioning to a vegetarian diet, even if the transformation happens later in life (2).
Changing to mainly plant-based eating at any age can decrease the risk of CVD in later years (3)
In August of 2021 a prospective study was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association that followed 4,946 CVD-free 18 to 30-year-old participants from 1985 until 2018. Researchers did not dictate what foods the participants were to ingest and strict veganism was not a goal. Rather the dietary habits of the subjects were assessed eight times over the course of the 32-year study using the A Priori Diet Quality Score in which higher scores indicate larger consumption of nutritionally rich plant foods and limited consumption of high‐fat meat products and less healthy plant foods. Lab tests, medical histories and physical measurements were also recorded during participant assessments.
Results of this study reveal that;
1 Consumption of a plant-centered, high-quality diet in early adulthood was associated with a 52% lower risk of heart attack or other CVD incidents during middle age.
2 Switching to a plant-centered, higher-quality diet over the course of the study was associated with a 61% lower risk of developing CVD compared to those participants whose diet worsened over time.
The study authors noted that, though it is not fully understood how a plant-strong diet protects against CVD, the combined action of the nutrients and bioactive compounds found in plant foods including ascorbic acid, tocopherols, carotenoids and phenolics are health-promoting in the following ways;
1 They can trap harmful free radicals and protect against tissue damage as well as enhance antioxidant activity.
2 They help to inhibit atherosclerotic plaque formation in arteries by reducing the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”); decreasing the inflammatory action of platelets that promotes plaque formation; and lowering inflammation in general.
Eating plant-based decreases risk of CVD after menopause in women (4)
Also in August of 2021, research from the Women’s Health Initiative was released in the Journal of the American Heart Association. This data came from over 123,000 postmenopausal women, aged 50 to 79 years and initially free of CVD, who were followed from 1993 through 2017. The study looked at the effects of high adherence to the Portfolio Diet, a plant-based diet established to lower cholesterol that was developed in the early 2000s at the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital.
The Portfolio diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and encourages consumption of nuts (especially almonds), plant protein (legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, soy and other beans), viscous fiber (beans, oats, barley, broccoli, sweet potatoes, eggplant, okra, psyllium, apples, citrus fruit and berries) and phytosterols (avocado, soybeans, chickpeas, almonds, corn oil, olive oil and phytosterol-enriched margarine). Red meat is to be avoided. Small amounts of chicken, turkey and fish are tolerated.
Following the Portfolio Diet was associated with…
11% lower risk of developing CVD of any kind
14% lower risk for coronary artery disease
17% lower risk of heart failure.
The more components of the Portfolio Diet that are followed, the more heart-health benefits achieved.
Evidence of the substantial beneficial effects of plant-sourced foods on health continues to increase. Undoubtedly, the best course of action for a healthy and vigorous life is to begin eating mostly plant-sourced foods in childhood and to keep this up throughout your lifetime. But this does not mean that it is too late for you. Healthier eating habits can enhance your wellbeing over your lifespan even if you don’t start until your 60s, 70s or 80s.
1 Crowe, F.L., Appleby, P.N., Travis, R.C., Key, T.J. Risk of hospitalization or death from ischemic heart disease among British vegetarians and nonvegetarians: results from the EPIC-Oxford cohort study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Mar; 97(3):597-603. Doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.044073.
2 Li, D. Effect of the vegetarian diet on non-communicable diseases. J Sci Food Agric. 2014 Jan 30; 94(2): 169-173. Doi: 10.1002/jsfa.6362.
3 Choi, Y., Larson, N., Steffen, L.M., Schreiner, P.J., Gallaher, D.D., Duprez, D.A., Shikany, J.M., Rana, J.S., Jacobs Jr., D.R. Plant‐Centered Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease During Young to Middle Adulthood. J Am Heart Assoc. August, 2021. 10(16); Doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.120.020718.
4 Glenn, A.J., Lo, K., Jenkins, D.J.A., Boucher, B.A., Hanley, A.J., Kendall, C.W.C., Manson, J.E., Vitolins, M.Z., Snetselaar, L.G., Liu, S., Sievenpiper, J.L. Relationship Between a Plant‐Based Dietary Portfolio and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Findings From the Women’s Health Initiative Prospective Cohort Study. J Am Heart Assoc. August, 2021. 10(16); Doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.121.021515.