Prevention plays an integral role in helping to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Before suffering a stroke, heart attack or heart failure, having the knowledge to prevent these conditions can lead to a second chance at a fuller, healthier life.

Approximately 610,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. every year, according to the American Heart Association. This accounts for one in every four deaths.

Cardiovascular disease or heart disease are conditions that involve narrow or blocked blood vessels, leading to heart attacks or stroke. Typically, those over the age of 65, more specifically men, are at higher risk of developing a cardiovascular disease. According to Brenda Rea, MD, DrPH, PT, RD, family and preventive medicine physician at Loma Linda University Health, a strong family history of the disease can also contribute.

People who choose early prevention are encouraged to pursue a vegetarian or largely plant-based diet — both great alternatives to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The variety of vegetarian options are lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Studies have shown that vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and coronary heart disease.

According to the Adventist Health Study-2, researchers found that vegetarians had a 13 percent decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a 19 percent decreased risk of an ischemic heart disease.

To live a heart-healthy life, Rea encourages individuals to avoid the following food items:

  • Meat, poultry and fish
  • Refined grains (white rice, baked goods, processed or packaged foods, “enriched” flour products and bread)
  • Dairy products (butter, cheese, cream, yogurt or skimmed milk)

The number one thing to avoid, according to Rea, is processed and packaged foods. These can cause inflammation and abnormal blood sugar responses.

“A whole food, plant-based diet is best,” Rea says. “If you have more than three to five ingredients, it’s probably processed.”

When it comes to a whole food, plant-based eating pattern, there are a few sources of nutrients to consider. These include protein, whole grains, legumes, unprocessed soy products, iron, vitamin b-12, vitamin D, calcium and zinc. The American Heart Association says studies show that vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from foods than non-vegetarians.

In addition to maintaining a healthy diet, physical activity is also essential to preventing or reducing cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week.

“How we think, how we move and how we eat,” says Rea, play a role in effective heart health. Not only is regular physical activity critical to one’s health, but managing stress, and integrating spirituality and purpose into daily life can also support a heart-healthy mentality.

For those who are considering a whole food, plant-based lifestyle or may not want to incorporate it 100 percent, Rea encourages people to still eat plenty of greens. She recommends starting small with two to four cups of leafy greens a day. Also aim to eat a cup of dark berries (i.e. strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, etc.) and a tablespoon of chia or flaxseed. The most important nutrient to any diet is water. “Try to drink approximately 100 ounces of water to keep hydrated,” Rea says.

Here are a few additional tips to consider when trying to eat healthy:

  • Don’t eat till you get full, eat until about four-fifths full.
  • Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients. This includes ingredients that are hard to pronounce.
  • Avoid buying food at the local gas station.
  • Avoid the middle of the supermarket when buying groceries. The real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store, according to Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food.”
  • Sit at the table and enjoy a meal with the family. Avoid the television.

At the 7th International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition — scheduled for Feb. 26-28 at Loma Linda University Health — Rea will be joined by Wes Youngberg, DrPH and Brenda Davis, a registered dietitian, to explain how a well-planned vegetarian diet containing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc. can provide adequate nutrition and reduce cardiovascular disease. 

For more information or to register for the Congress, visit