Plant-based diets are great for cardiovascular health, but a vegetarian diet low in saturated fats may not be the best thing for keeping cholesterol in check.
Instead, it may be better to selectively eat a few foods that decrease the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is also known as the "bad" cholesterol.
This was the main takeaway of an influential study, published in 2011, that presented a "portfolio" of four foods that had each been proven to reduce cholesterol and heart disease risk. These foods are:
- plant protein obtained either from soy-based foods such as tofu, soy milk, or other soy-based meat substitutes, or from pulses such as beans, peas, chickpeas, or lentils
- soluble fiber, such as "oats, barley, psyllium, eggplant, okra, apples, oranges, or berries"
- margarine enhanced with plant sterols, or "cholesterol-like" compounds that can be found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and cereals
Ever since 2011, several governmental organizations have recognized the benefits of this so-called Portfolio diet.
Now, the European Association for the Study of Diabetes have commissioned a meta-analysis of all the evidence available to assess and summarize the benefits of the Portfolio diet for preventing cardiovascular disease.
The first author of the new paper is Laura Chiavaroli, from the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto in Canada, and the findings were published in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases.
Cholesterol lowered by 17 percent
Specifically, the Portfolio diet recommends a daily intake of 42 grams of nuts, 20 grams of soluble fiber, 2 grams of plant sterols, and 50 grams of plant protein. The amounts are based on a daily consumption of 2,000 calories.
Chiavaroli and colleagues examined randomized and non-randomized controlled trials that studied the effect of this dietary pattern "in comparison to any energy-matched diet that did not provide components of the Portfolio [diet]."
Overall, the analysis found that sticking to the Portfolio diet lowers total cholesterol levels, as well as triglycerides (which are the most common fat types in the human body), blood pressure, and C-reactive protein (which is a marker of inflammation).
In fact, the Portfolio diet decreased LDL cholesterol by 17 percent and the risk of developing coronary heart disease over the course of a decade by 13 percent.
The authors conclude, "Current evidence demonstrates that the Portfolio dietary pattern leads to clinically meaningful improvements in [LDL cholesterol] as well as other established cardiometabolic risk factors and estimated 10-year [coronary heart disease] risk."
Study co-author Dr. Hana Kahleova, Ph.D. — the director of clinical research for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — comments on the findings.
She says, "Previous clinical trials and observational studies have found strong evidence that a plant-based diet can improve heart health."
"This study demonstrates that certain plant foods are especially effective for lowering cholesterol and boosting our overall cardiovascular health."
Dr. Hana Kahleova, Ph.D.