Fighting Heart Disease with Healthy Hospital Food

Posted on by Neal Barnard, MD, FACC

plant-based hospital food helps heart healthNew York State hospitals must now make plant-based meals available to patients upon request, thanks to a law that goes into effect on December 6.
The law helps reinforce advice that I give my patients every day: Eating more fruits, vegetables, grains and beans can help prevent and, in many cases, reverse heart disease. This lifesaving law supports calls from both the American Medical Association and the American College of Cardiology for plant-based hospital meals. The American Heart Association also recommends “eating a mostly plant-based diet, provided the foods you choose are rich in nutrition and low in added sugars, sodium (salt), cholesterol and artery-clogging saturated and trans fats.” As the director of Cardiovascular Prevention for Northwell Health and the director of the Women’s Heart Program at Lenox Hill Hospital, I couldn’t agree more and know that the need to educate patients on the role nutrition plays in preventing and recovering from heart disease is critical. Nearly 5 million adults statewide have high blood pressure, with more than a quarter taking medication to control it. More than a third of New Yorkers who have had their cholesterol checked have high cholesterol. And both of these conditions contribute to the 40% of all deaths statewide from cardiovascular disease. I explain to my patients that a healthy plant-based diet is the most optimal for reducing these risks and that any change in this direction is a positive one. The research backs me up. One meta-analysis that reviewed 39 studies found that plant-based diets were associated with lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures compared with diets that included more animal products. Research also shows that those who eat a more plant-based diet have better cholesterol levels. For patients who have suffered a heart attack, eating a diet high in fiber – which is found only in plant foods – can help reduce the risk of death from heart disease. Of course, there are dozens of other studies that demonstrate the benefits, too. Fighting these conditions is now more important than ever. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease are among the top five COVID-19 comorbidities in New York State. I first became interested in a plant-based diet early in my career as a practicing physician. After being assigned to teach cardiology fellows about diet and cardiovascular disease, I began to realize the tremendous import of teaching ourselves more about nutrition in order to better treat and teach our patients. I have since seen many success stories in patients following a plant-based diet. The effects are noted in reduced LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels as well as weight loss and even reduction in symptoms of angina. These are all due to the positive effects of the health-promoting nutrients found in high quantities in a plant-based diet (i.e., antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids). The greatest benefits are seen when families start to eat this way together and children avoid the development of risk factors for heart disease entirely. Lenox Hill already provides fully plant-based meals – such as roasted delicata squash stuffed with spicy quinoa, squash ravioli with pecan sage pesto, summer squash and carrot medley, okra sautéed with tomatoes, vegetarian split pea soup, and old-fashioned oatmeal –for inpatients and in its cafeteria. We are now working on the next phase of educating patients about nutrition by encouraging those who have not tried plant-based eating to learn more during their hospital stay or visit to the cafeteria. The good news is that this new law ensures that all patients in New York State can experience the power of a plant-based prescription against heart disease. Eugenia Gianos, MD, is the director of Cardiovascular Prevention for Northwell Health and director of Women’s Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital. Photo from here, with thanks.