New research by the American Heart Association (AHA) reveals how a plant-based diet reduces cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women.

For the study, researchers evaluated a specific way of eating called the “Portfolio Diet,” which consists of a wide variety of plant-based foods. It’s been associated with lower cholesterol levels and fewer cardiovascular disease events in postmenopausal women.

The Portfolio Diet includes the following foods and guidelines:

  • nuts;
  • plant protein from soy, beans, or tofu;
  • viscous soluble fiber from foods like apples, berries, oranges, eggplant, okra, oats, and barley;
  • plant sterols from enriched foods such as cereals;
  • monounsaturated fats in olive and canola oil or avocados, and;
  • limited amounts of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol.

Two prior randomized trials showed that people who ate more foods in the Portfolio Diet had significantly lower “bad” cholesterol (LDL). In fact, the first group had lower LDL levels than those following a traditional low-saturated-fat National Cholesterol and Education Program diet. The other group had levels similar to those who took a cholesterol-lowering statin medication.

postmenopausal women
Study details

For the study, researchers investigated whether postmenopausal women following a Portfolio Diet had lower heart disease risk. The study included 123,330 US women who volunteered for the Women’s Health Initiative Prospective Cohort study. The long-term national study analyzed risk factors, prevention, and early detection of serious health risks in postmenopausal women.

The women participating in the study enrolled between 1993 and 1998 and ranged from 50-79 years old (average age: 62). They did not have cardiovascular disease at the time of enrollment. Researchers followed the study group until 2017 and gave each participant food-frequency questionnaires to track their adherence to the Portfolio Diet.

Researchers tracked primary outcomes of total CVD, coronary heart disease, and stroke. Secondary outcomes were heart failure and atrial fibrillation. Over a mean follow-up period of 15.3 years, 13,365 total CVD, 5,640 coronary heart disease, 4,440 strokes, 1,907 heart failure, and 929 atrial fibrillation events occurred.

How plant-based foods improve the health of postmenopausal women

The self-reported questionnaires revealed the following:

  • The women who most strictly followed the diet had an 11% lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease. They also were 14% less likely to develop coronary heart disease and 17% less likely to experience heart failure.
  • However, there was no link between strict adherence to the Portfolio Diet and atrial fibrillation or stroke instances.

“These results present an important opportunity, as there is still room for people to incorporate more cholesterol-lowering plant foods into their diets. With even greater adherence to the Portfolio dietary pattern, one would expect an association with even less cardiovascular events, perhaps as much as cholesterol-lowering medications. Still, an 11% reduction is clinically meaningful and would meet anyone’s minimum threshold for a benefit. The results indicate the Portfolio Diet yields heart-health benefits,” said John Sievenpiper, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the study at St. Michael’s Hospital, a site of Unity Health Toronto in Ontario, Canada, and associate professor of nutritional sciences and medicine at the University of Toronto.

Want better health? Eat more plants

The study authors believe these results should garner the attention of healthcare professionals worldwide. Encouraging patients to eat more foods in the Portfolio Diet may lower heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular events. Plant-based diets continue to grow in popularity due to ethical and environmental concerns. If eating more plants becomes the norm, perhaps we’ll have an epidemic of health shortly.

“We also found a dose response in our study, meaning that you can start small, adding one component of the Portfolio Diet at a time, and gain more heart-health benefits as you add more components,” said Andrea J. Glenn, M.Sc., R.D., lead author of the study and a doctoral student at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.

Although the study only included postmenopausal women, researchers believe the findings warrant trials in other populations. To date, the study provides the strongest evidence on the long-term benefits of the Portfolio Diet in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. However, the team says that they’re awaiting the results of a clinical trial with cardiovascular events for further confirmation. In the meantime, this observational study shows that following the Portfolio Diet improves overall health in postmenopausal women.

The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and Diabetes Canada. It was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association on August 4, 2021.

Other healthy habits for postmenopausal women

It’s no secret that eating more plants will improve your health tenfold. The studies above show that postmenopausal women in particular benefit from plant-based diets. However, there’s more to health than just eating well. Here are a few things to keep in mind after menopause, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine:

  • Be mindful of Vitamin D and calcium intake. Aim for 1,200mg of calcium per day and 500-800 IU of Vitamin D to keep your bones strong.
  • Exercise regularly. Weight-training a few times per week along with light aerobic exercise helps control weight gain, improve mood and preserve bone mass.
  • Keep your stress low and avoid smoking. Postmenopausal women have an increased risk of heart disease due to hormonal changes. To minimize risk, practice stress-lowering exercises such as deep breathing and meditation. Avoid smoking as this greatly increase heart disease risk.

postmenopausal women
Final thoughts on a study showing plant-based foods lower disease risk in women over 50

A recent study from the AHA shows that postmenopausal women have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease by following plant-based diets. Researchers tracked women following the Portfolio Diet and found that it lowered cardiovascular disease risk by 11%. The diet also reduced their risk of coronary heart disease and heart failure by 14 and 17%, respectively. These results are statistically significant and show that nature is indeed the best medicine.

Researchers are awaiting a clinical trial that measures how the Portfolio Diet and exercise impact atherosclerotic CVD risk.