By adopting a mostly vegan diet, Bill Clinton is taking a smart step toward protecting his health. Research shows that people who eat plant-based diets have lower levels of cholesterol and a lower risk for heart disease. Vegans have the lowest blood cholesterol levels of all, which is important for the former president who has undergone two medical procedures for heart disease.
But while eating more plants and fewer animal products is the best prescription for heart health, some vegan diets are better than others for combating chronic disease. Here are a few things that President Clinton can do to make his vegan diet as heart healthy as possible.
Include nuts in daily menus. Older advice to avoid these higher-fat foods has been quashed by the impressive number of studies showing that nuts protect heart health. They’re good sources of the types of fat that help lower blood cholesterol and also are rich in vitamin E, folate, fiber, and antioxidants. Compounds in nuts improve the flexibility and health of the arteries, and the protein in nuts is high in the amino acid L-arginine which helps relax blood vessels. Nuts are probably a unique heart-healthy food since their many bioactive compounds may act together to keep arteries healthy.
Take a vitamin B12 supplement. President Clinton needed a vitamin B12 supplement even before he went vegan, since many people over the age of 50—no matter what type of diet they eat—can’t absorb vitamin B12 from food. The B12 in supplements is well absorbed by nearly everyone, though, especially when the pills are chewed. Marginal B12 status is associated with higher blood levels of homocysteine, a compound linked to increased risk for heart disease.
Choose added fats wisely. One unfortunate trend in popular diets has been toward vegan diets that are ultra-low in fat. That’s an idea that gained some popularity a few decades ago, but heart disease experts recognize now that it’s a bad idea. Diets that are too low in fat can depress levels of HDL-cholesterol, the good cholesterol. Replacing saturated fat in the diet with a combination of healthy monounsaturated fats and carbohydrates from whole foods is a better option than shunning all fats.
One good choice is extra virgin olive oil which is rich in monounsaturated fats and also contains protective plant compounds. One chemical in extra-virgin olive oil, called oleocanthal—this is the organic compound that provides olive oil’s “peppery bite” to the back of the throat—has anti-inflammatory properties, and may protect against both heart disease and cancer. Other compounds in extra virgin olive oil may also reduce oxidation of harmful LDL-cholesterol which could lower risk for heart disease. Canola oil is another good choice since it has the unique advantage of providing both monounsaturated and omega-3 fats.
Take a DHA supplement. The jury is out on whether this long-chain omega-3 fat protects against heart disease, but a supplement provides good insurance. The best choice is a vegan supplement derived from algae—which is where fish get their DHA. Going straight to the source—and skipping the fish—is a more humane choice and a better one for the environment, too.
Enjoy some soy foods. The protein in soy has a direct effect in lowering blood cholesterol levels, especially when it’s teamed up with other heart healthy foods like nuts. Good sources of soy protein include tofu, tempeh, soymilk and some veggie meats.
Virginia Messina is a dietitian specializing in vegan nutrition. Her new book is Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-based Diet. Learn more about vegan nutrition by reading her blog TheVeganRD, or by following her twitter.