Absence of Meat Makes the Heart Grow Stronger

A recent study found that working long hours could increase the risk of stroke and heart attack, something we should all keep in mind as we struggle to find a work-life balance in our competitive, fast-paced world. Try as we might to work less and de-stress, however, many of us simply have jobs that require extreme overtime hours.

But there is something we can do to prevent America's deadliest disease no matter our career path: improve the way we eat. Studies show that heavy consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular problems. On the flip side, consuming plant-based foods such as beans, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables is associated with a sharply reduced risk. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that compared with meat-eaters, vegetarians have a 32 percent lower risk of heart disease.

When it comes to heart disease, food isn't just a preventative medicine. It can even be a cure. Back in 1998, Dr. Dean Ornish, whose signature diet is consistently ranked the top for heart health today, shocked the medical community when he found that patients put on a plant-based diet reversed their heart disease. That is, they essentially cured themselves by changing what they ate and adjusting their lifestyle. His and other studies show this treatment comes with only positive side effects, too: significant, lasting weight loss, lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, lower risk of diabetes and, for men, even freedom from the little blue pill.

Dr. Ornish isn't the only one prescribing plant-based diets. Kaiser Permanente, the country's largest HMO, advises that "physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients," especially those with cardiovascular disease. Current president of the American College of Cardiology, Dr. Kim Williams, adopted a vegan diet after witnessing a patient cure her heart disease by dropping all animal products. He now helps his other patients do the same.

Preventing and reversing heart disease with diet isn't neuroscience. The real question is how -- how do we make the switch from the standard American diet to a heart-happy diet? How do we overhaul our meals without overhauling our lives?

Thankfully, heart-healthy eating is easier than ever. Meatless burritos, bean burgers, veggie chili and even pizzas are as delectable as their cheesy, meaty counterparts. Restaurant menus and supermarket shelves get more veggie-heavy by the day, and the country's dietary guidelines will likely follow suit. Everyone from politicians Al Gore and Senator Cory Booker to celebrities Ellen DeGeneres and Jared Leto have touted the benefits of a vegan lifestyle. Even Beyoncé is cashing in on the plant-based revolution with a meal delivery service that'll bring a vegan dinner to your door.

When making this transition, the key is to start small, one meal at a time. Eat vegan for breakfast for a week, then lunch for a week, then dinner. Grab a vegan cookbook from the library or bookstore. Stick with the staples and the foods you already love; you'll find that the internet is a treasure trove of vegan versions of nearly every dish. Replace cow's milk with soy, almond, or rice; swap beef for beans in chili; drop chicken for chickpeas (or a succulent plant-based meat) in your salad. When eating out, go global: Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Thai and other cuisines are almost always veg-friendly, and many chefs are more flexible than you'd think.

Tens of millions of Americans have moved from meat-centered meals to ones rich in vegetables, grains, beans and other plant-based foods. Do the same, and you'll shield yourself from heart disease and a host of other health problems. As a bonus, you'll also do your part to alleviate animal suffering and lighten your environmental footprint.

So what are you waiting for? Eat to your heart's content.

Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT, also known as The Plant-Based Dietitian and host of the television show What Would Julieanna Do? , is the author of The Vegiterranean Diet and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition, speaker, health and fitness expert, and lifestyle coach.