The Connection Between a Plant-Based Diet and Good Heart Health

By Heather Shenkman, MD, FACC, Interventional Cardiologist and part of the Jewish Veg Advisory Council.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, accounting for one in four deaths in the United States.* Genetics definitely plays a role in who gets heart disease. However, our lifestyle — including diet, exercise, smoking cessation, and stress management — can reduce the risk of a heart attack by a whopping 80%.

There are plenty of compelling reasons to eat plant-based for the animals and for our environment.  That said, I focus in my daily work on preventing and treating heart disease. It’s good to know that eating in a way that is good for the animals and the planet is also optimal for your heart. For me, the connection between a plant-based diet and good health is all too clear, as I treat patients who have lost their health at least partially due to their poor dietary choices.

Choosing a healthy plant-based diet can naturally lower blood pressure and cholesterol, decrease atherosclerosis (plaque within the arteries), reduce obesity, and decrease inflammation in the body.

The Adventist Health Study demonstrated a much lower prevalence of heart disease among vegetarians and vegans compared to those consuming animal products. While red and processed meats have been demonstrated to increase the incidence of heart disease, replacing animal protein with plant protein can reduce the risk of heart disease and death by 54%.**

For people who already have heart disease, transitioning to a plant-diet can pay big dividends. 

Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr. — director of the Heart Disease Reversal Program at the Cleveland Clinic — began urging his patients to adopt plant-based diets after seeing the amazing results of a study he conducted himself. 

He started with a group of 24 patients with end-stage heart disease, putting them all on a diet free of oil, nuts and animal products, with the exception of a small amount of fat-free milk and yogurt.  

Of the 24 patients, six failed to stick to the mostly vegan diet. All six suffered cardiac events within the next five years, including heart attacks and bypass surgeries. But among the 18 patients who adhered to Dr. Esselstyn’s recommendations, none experienced a cardiac event over that five-year period. 

Dr. Esselstyn, as many other researchers have done since, showed that you can not just prevent but reverse heart disease through improved diets. 

While I certainly advocate that my patients also get adequate exercise, avoid smoking, and develop rich, full social lives, I am most concerned with their diets. I have seen my own patients reverse their heart disease by following a plant-based diet. In fact, not one of my patients who has adopted a plant-based diet has suffered another heart attack, or even required another stent. 

As Dr. Kim Williams, former president of the American College of Cardiology, once said: 

“There are only two kinds of cardiologists: Vegans, and those who haven’t read the data.” 

To learn more about Dr. Shenkman’s work or schedule an appointment, visit

*Virani et al, Heart disease and stroke statistics – 2021 update: a report from the American Heart Association, Circulation, 2021:143:e254-e743

**Zhong VW, Allen NB, Greenland P, et al. Protein foods from animal sources, incident cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: a substitution analysis. Int J Epidemiol. 2021;50(1):223-233. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyaa205)