Research Brief

Switching to plant-centered diet reduces risk of cardiovascular disease for young and middle adults

Fruits and vegetables
Credit: Getty/fcafotodigital

Scientists debate whether diets focusing on nutritionally-rich plant foods and restricting — but not prohibiting — animal products lowers the risk of people developing cardiovascular disease. They’ve also wondered how overall diet quality from young to middle adulthood relates to the risk of developing the disease later on. New research from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health now shows that young adults who focus on eating plant-centered meals significantly reduce their possibility of developing cardiovascular disease.
The study, led by postdoctoral researcher Yuni Choi, Ph.D., and Professor David Jacobs, Ph.D., was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
The researchers arrived at their conclusion after analyzing data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) cohort, a large study following nearly 5,000 Black and white men and women in four U.S. cities for 32 years. The study includes assessing diet quality of the participants using the A Priori Diet Quality Score (APDQS). Higher scores of the APDQS represent greater consumption of nutritionally-rich plant foods and healthier animal products (e.g., low-fat yogurt, non-fried fish) and lower consumption of high-fat meat products and unhealthy plant foods. The researchers divided participants into five groups based on their APDQS score and linked it to risk of being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.
The researchers found:

  • During 32 years of follow-up, 289 of the participants developed cardiovascular disease.
  • Participants who most frequently ate nutritionally-rich plant foods, fewer nutritionally-poor plant foods, and fewer unhealthy animal products (those in the top 20% of the APDQS score) had a 52% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to those who least frequently ate such a diet (those in the bottom 20% of the APDQS score).
  • Regardless of their earlier diet quality, participants who improved their diet quality the most during the first 20 years of follow-up had a 61% lower risk of subsequent cardiovascular disease compared to those whose diet quality decreased the most over the same period. 

“Most previous studies have focused on a vegetarian diet or a diet score that emphasized only plant-sourced foods. However, the top 20% group in our study are those who made nutritionally-rich plant foods a central point of their diet, but also ate some healthy animal-based foods,” said Choi. “We recognize the general population cannot follow a very restricted diet for a long time, so our study brings out the point to think sensibly about food and diet in more holistic ways. If done so, we think that eating a diet that places plants at the center can be palatable, enjoyable and sustainable.”
The researchers recommend that dietary guidelines place more emphasis on following a plant-centered diet and include detailed discretionary food group lists (nutritionally-rich vs nutritionally-poor foods groups). Health care providers should also discuss the benefits of a plant-centered diet with their patients for prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Other co-authors are Nicole Larson, Ph.D.; Lyn M. Steffen, Ph.D.; Pamela J. Schreiner, Ph.D.; Daniel D. Gallaher, Ph.D.; Daniel A. Duprez, M.D., Ph.D.; James M. Shikany, Dr.P.H.; and Jamal S. Rana, M.D., Ph.D.
The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health; Healthy Food Healthy Lives Institute at the University of Minnesota; and the MnDrive Global Food Ventures Professional Development Program at the University of Minnesota.

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