There’s no denying that a plant-based diet offers a wide variety of health benefits. For years, nutritionists have praised the power of eating plants, and with more and more celebrities embracing a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle, it’s a trend that’s definitely catching on.
According to new research, a plant-based diet is also the best diet for heart health. Researchers analyzed 99 studies to determine the connection between cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk and eating specific foods for atherosclerosis prevention.
Findings suggested a low intake of salt and animal foods, and a higher intake of plant-based food (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts) are linked to a reduced risk of atherosclerosis. More specifically, processed and red meat was associated with a higher CVD risk and small amounts of cheese and yogurt can help protect heart health.
Also, replacing high glycemic index foods with whole grain and low glycemic cereal foods can reduce the risk of CVD. For beverages, low alcohol, coffee and tea intake proved to be beneficial as well.
Want to go plant-based for the sake of your heart, but not sure where to start? While adopting new dietary habits isn’t easy, experts agree the Portfolio Diet—a plant-based diet specifically focused on cholesterol-lowering foods—can be a healthy approach to eating.
We spoke to Dr. Julie Miller Jones, PhD, LN, CNS, emeritus professor of nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN, and a member of the Grain Foods Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board, to learn everything you need to know about this style of eating.
What is the portfolio diet?
Developed in the early 2000s, this plant-based diet includes the four cholesterol-lowering foods approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada, and the European Food Safety Authority.
Essentially, it’s a 2,000-calorie diet that incorporates nuts, legumes, and various sources of dietary fiber. Here’s a breakdown of what’s included:
- 1 ½ oz nuts; beans and legumes (peas, various beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils, tofu)
- 2 ounces of foods with B-glucan and other viscous dietary fiber (oats, barley, psyllium, okra, eggplants and fruits such as apples and pears, citrus and berries)
- 20 g coming from different soluble fiber-containing foods
Related: 20 Foods High in Soluble Fiber
“It’s important to note that the viscous fibers are in grains as well as legumes and vegetables,” Dr. Miller Jones explains. “This diet is another testament to the need for different types of fibers from fruits and vegetables; nuts, legumes and seeds, and grains such as oats or barley.”
Research also confirms the positive impact of the portfolio eating style.
“Recent analysis of eating patterns of women in the Women’s Health Initiative showed that those diets included many of the ‘portfolio food’ had a 10% lower risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure,” Dr. Miller Jones states.
However, this is far less compared to controlled feeding conditions where cholesterol reduction was almost 30%. Study authors noted that sticking to the diet was a big problem, as it doesn’t feel sustainable for a lot of people.
Overall, this diet is healthy. But only “if you eat all the components, as many of them lower cholesterol,” according to Dr. Miller Jones.
Portfolio diet risks
Like any diet or eating plan, there are some risks that come with the Portfolio diet—one being that you may not get enough protein.
“You’ll need to balance grains and legumes to get enough protein, and you may need more plant-based protein to make up for the protein you’re not getting from animal sources,” Dr. Miller Jones explains.
Also, omega-3 fatty acids from fish might be low. “While walnuts and chia are sources, the type from fish are much better utilized by the body,” says Dr. Miller Jones.
Related: The Protective Power of Omega 3
Another issue is could be the availability of key nutrients like calcium, iron, and zinc. “Legumes and whole grains and many vegetables contain oxalates and phytates which affect the absorption of these minerals,” Dr. Miller Jones states.
If you find that you’re lacking in any of these nutrients while on the Portfolio Diet or another plant-based diet, consider talking to your doctor about a supplement.
Is the Portfolio Diet sustainable?
Based on the research around the Portfolio Diet, it may be tough for some people to stick to. “I always say that a diet that ‘works’ is one that people stay on,” Dr. Miller Jones explains. “In the study, even the group that had the highest intake of Portfolio Diet components did not come close to meeting the goals of the diet.”
The estimated average adherence was just over 20%, with the maximum adherence around 50%. “Part of the reason is that eggplant and okra are not popular vegetables, may be hard to get, are not used in many ethnic traditions, and often are cooked in complex ways requiring both time and skill,” says Dr. Miller Jones.
As beneficial as it can be for heart health, if you try the Portofolio Diet and find that it’s not working for you and you’re willing to incorporate animal products, the Mediterranean Diet offers a wider variety of options, and is also great for heart health—te Mediterranean Diet has been voted the best diet for 2021 by health experts for four years running.
Next up: 40 Best Plant-Based Protein Sources