Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: All Plant Foods Are Not Created Equal

  • Elena C. Hemler
  • Frank B. HuEmail author
Nutrition (P. Kris-Etherton and K. Petersen, Section Editors)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Nutrition


Purpose of Review

Plant-based diets have been widely promoted for cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk reduction. This review discusses the various definitions of plant-based diets and summarizes their associations with CVD risk, specifically distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy plant-based diets.

Recent Findings

Despite wide variation in definition, most studies suggest that plant-based diets are generally beneficial for cardiovascular health. Many previous studies have defined plant-based diets by the complete exclusion of meat or animal products, while others have accounted for plant-based diets including moderate amounts of animal-source foods. Only a few studies have considered the healthfulness of the specific plant foods included in these dietary patterns. In these studies, plant-based diets containing higher amounts of healthy foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, oils, tea, and coffee are associated with lower CVD risk. However, plant-based diets including higher amounts of less healthy plant foods, such as refined grains, potatoes/fries, and foods and beverages high in added sugar, are linked to increased risk.


A wide spectrum of plant-based diets can be nutritionally adequate and confer cardiovascular benefits, as long as they are planned appropriately and include high-quality foods. Contrary to popular belief, plant-based diets do not have to be vegan or vegetarian. For most people, complete elimination of meat or animal products is unrealistic and not necessary for cardiovascular health. Quality of the specific components of plant-based diets is also important to consider, as not all plant-source foods have beneficial cardiovascular effects. Healthy plant-based diets can be customized to fit individual and cultural preferences and, with large-scale adoption, could concurrently mitigate threats to both human and environmental health.


Plant-based dietary patterns Cardiovascular disease Diet quality Healthy plant-based diets 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Elena Hemler has no conflict of interest to disclose. Dr. Hu reports receiving research support from the California Walnut Commission and personal fees from Standard Process, Diet Quality Photo Navigation, and Metagenics, outside the submitted work.

Source of support: FBH’s research is supported by NIH grants HL60712, HL118264, and DK112940.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of NutritionHarvard T.H. Chan School of Public HealthBostonUSA
  2. 2.Department of EpidemiologyHarvard T.H. Chan School of Public HealthBostonUSA
  3. 3.Channing Division of Network Medicine, Department of MedicineBrigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA

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