Eating for Heart Health: Long-Term Benefits of Cholesterol-Lowering Foods

Recommendations for heart health and cancer survivorship are usually very similar, with good reason: Cardiovascular disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death for middle-aged adults (45-64 years) and share many health and lifestyle risk factors. Recent research also indicates that individuals with cancer have worse cardiovascular health than those without cancer, although this varies by sex, age group, and socioeconomic status. 

So, when new research emerges for a heart healthy diet, it’s worth taking a closer look. Nutrition research is often conducted in the short term, which can make it hard to draw conclusions about how healthy a diet or eating pattern might be in the long term. When longer-term studies are conducted, we are often excited to see what we can learn about foods and ways of eating. 

In a recently published study, researchers analyzed data for 210,000 women and men across 30 years of follow-up to understand how what’s called the Portfolio Diet affected cardiovascular disease. The term “cardiovascular disease” refers to a group of diseases related to the heart and blood vessels, which can cause heart attack and stroke. Results from the study showed that the Portfolio Diet was consistently associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.  

What is the Portfolio Diet? 

The Portfolio Diet is an eating plan that emphasizes cholesterol-lowering plant foods, including:  

  • Plant proteins, especially from soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk) 
  • Soluble fiber from fruits, vegetables, seeds, and grains (oats, barley, flaxseed, okra, apples) 
  • Unsaturated, healthy fats from tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios) 
  • Plant sterols, which can be found in small amounts in a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy oils like olive oil and canola oil 

Why do these foods fall into the cholesterol-lowering category? Plant proteins are low in saturated fat compared to animal protein sources. Eating large amounts of saturated fat can raise your cholesterol, so it makes good sense to limit animal protein if you are concerned about your cholesterol. As your body digests food, soluble fiber can trap cholesterol and keep your body from reabsorbing it into your bloodstream, while plant sterols can block its absorption. Both soluble fiber and plant sterols can help to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad”, cholesterol, and lower LDL  means a lower risk for cardiovascular disease. 

The researchers emphasized that even sometimes eating cholesterol-lowering plant foods can be beneficial to heart health. You don’t have to eat these foods with every meal every day to benefit, but the more often you can eat these foods, the greater potential benefit.  As this research shows, a plant-focused diet is not only cancer-protective but also good for your heart. 

To learn more about cholesterol, read our blog post  on that topic.

References and Additional Resources: 

Glenn AJ, Guasch-Ferré M, Malik VS, Kendall CWC, Manson JE, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Sun Q, Jenkins DJA, Hu FB, Sievenpiper JL. (2023). Portfolio diet score and risk of cardiovascular disease: Findings from 3 prospective cohort studies. Circulation, 148(22), 1750–1763. 

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