The Best Diet For Heart Health?

Coffee drinkers probably don’t need any additional data to support their habit, but a new study presented at the American Heart Association meeting brings some happy news anyway: It finds that each additional cup of coffee a person drinks is associated with a measurable reduction in heart risk. Also presented at the conference this week, a plant-based diet seems to be best for the heart, compared to various alternatives.

Neither of these studies offers any great revelations—earlier research has certainly revealed the same connections—but they do offer some more evidence and more specifics. And perhaps more reason for coffee-drinkers and veggie lovers alike to feel good about their routines.

The first study looked at data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has been following participants for decades, tracking their lifestyle habits and health outcomes. Using machine learning to analyze the data, the team found that coffee was strongly associated with heart health: for each additional cup of coffee consumed per week, the risk of heart failure dropped by 7%, and the risk of stroke by 8%. The benefit seemed to extend up to a whopping six cups per day, which was the most people in the study tended to drink. For those of us who drink multiple cups per day, this is great news.

The other study, on dietary habits and heart health, used data from the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study, which has been tracking people middle-aged and older over time. The researchers also looked for correlations, this time between five different types of diet and heart health. The plant-based diet, which consisted largely of leafy vegetables, fruits, beans and fish, sounds a lot like the Mediterranean diet. There was also the “convenience diet,” made up of red meats, pasta, fast foods and fries. The “sweets diet” was carb- and sugar-heavy. The “Southern diet” consisted was heavy on fried foods, organ meats, processed foods, eggs, and sugar-sweetened drinks. Finally, the “alcohol/salads diet” was marked by consumption of leafy vegetables, salad dressings, butter, wine and liquor.

The plant-based diet was linked to a reduction in risk for heart failure (up to 42%), compared to those which consisted of the fewest vegetables. Unsurprisingly, the other types weren’t associated with any heart benefits.

For coffee, it’s likely the antioxidants that may account for much of the heart benefit. As for a plant-based diet, aside from the rich antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, the fiber and healthy fats may add to the benefit.

Keep in mind these were both presentations at a conference, so haven’t been peer-reviewed or published in a journal. They’re also just correlations, and although potentially confounding variables were accounted for, it’s possible that there’s more to the story than what we see here. But because both findings agree strongly with previous research, it’s probably OK to take them as more evidence for a plant-based and coffee-rich lifestyle.

If you’re unenthused about the idea of a plant-based diet, remember that it’s not necessarily vegetarian or vegan – the most famous and well-researched plant-based diet is the Mediterranean diet, which includes fish, even small amounts of red meat, and a little dairy and eggs. The same is true for the well-studied MIND diet. For both, it’s just that the scaffolding is plants, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and grains. It’s not such a bad way to eat, and as with most things, moderation is probably key.

Luckily, as the coffee study shows, maybe coffee is one thing that we don’t have to watch so carefully.

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