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New studies reveal other ways plant-based diets help heart health - and longevity

TMAO - Bacteria

Two studies about food and the microbiome caught my attention recently: The first one shed new light on the connection between trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) and cardiovascular disease, and the second looked at the more general effects of a Mediterranean diet on the gut microbiome in older individuals.

TMAO is a compound produced by bacteria in your digestive system in response to certain nutrients and, as I’ve explained in an earlier blog, is a risk factor for cardiovascular events. Previous studies had only looked at TMAO levels at a single point in time and correlated them with subsequent outcomes.  The new research showed that changes in TMAO levels over time also affect risk. By examining blood samples from 760 women in the Nurses’ Health Study taken 10 years apart, scientists found that women whose samples showed the biggest increase in TMAO had a 67 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease.

What was the driver of increasing TMAO levels? Nutrients found specifically in red meat, egg yolks, and high-fat dairy products. And what helped drive TMAO levels down?  A diet that underpins the Step One program -- full of whole-food fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidants all coming from plant-based sources. 

According to the researchers, “Even though TMAO is related to cardiovascular disease, we can really modify the effect by eating a healthy diet."

In the second study, researchers noted that stepping up to a Mediterranean meal plan improved the bacterial diversity of the microbiomes of older individuals and this was linked to both better brain function and increased physical strength.

The gut microbiome is a complex system of bacteria that live inside our digestive tracts.  And we are just learning about the vast importance of this system to our overall health.  For example, the effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiome explains why people who drink diet soda are just as likely to develop diabetes as those who drink regular pop.   

What’s really amazing about this latest study is that the better brain function and increased physical strength associated with adopting the Mediterranean diet was seen very quickly – those improvements were already evident in just one year! That switching to a more plant-based eating pattern can have such rapid effects is extremely encouraging – especially for those of us trying to achieve healthy aging. 

For me, reading the results of these two studies together reinforced – again - just how powerful good nutrition can be. It reinforced the idea of side benefits (if you eat for a healthy heart, you’ll likely experience a whole host of other benefits).  And it reinforced my approach of using nutrition as a central component of my cardiology practice - and to found Step One Foods. Our products are an easy-to-incorporate and research-backed way to get more plants into your diet, and it makes me proud knowing we are making a difference and helping improve your health.

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