A diet high in processed plant-based foods has been linked to a greater risk of heart disease.

July 27, 2017

As a nutritionist, plant-based diets have been one of my areas of specialty for well over a decade. So I am thrilled that more and more people are interested in this way of eating, even on a part-time basis. But I am also concerned about the trend toward highly processed plant-based foods.

These are foods that have been stripped of important nutrients, or formulated with unwanted additives. (Think snack chips, sugary cereals, and fake bacon.) They are everywhere, and it's incredibly easy to eat a lot of them—which won't protect your health, and could actually harm it. 

In fact, new research suggests that these plant-based junk foods may actually raise a person's risk of heart disease. The study, which was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, looked at data from more than 200,000 people to analyze links between diet and heart health

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The researchers found that adhering to a plant-based diet was associated with a lower risk of heart disease. But the type of plant foods mattered—a lot.

When the researchers broke down plant-based diets further, they discovered an important difference: While high intake of whole plant-based foods was linked to lower risk of heart disease; a high intake of processed plant-based foods was associated with a higher risk of heart disease. This negative impact was consistent when the researchers controlled for age, sex, BMI, and family history.

The takeaway? Quality is king. To protect against heart disease—which is the top killer of both men and women—you should definitely reach for more plant-based foods, but make healthy choices a priority. Here are a few tips to help you do just that:

Aim for two cups of fresh fruit a day. You might have one with breakfast, and one as an afternoon snack along with nuts or nut butter.

Try to to fit in five daily cups of veggies. That should include one cup at breakfast (either whipped into a smoothie, added to an omelet, or just on the side) and two cups at lunch and dinner (in a salad or raw, sautéed, oven-roasted, or grilled).

Commit to eating whole grains. Pick oats, quinoa, or brown and wild rice, for example, over refined grains. And choose portions in line with your body's need. In other words, don't overdo it, even on whole grains.

Opt for more meatless meals. Make pulses (beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas) your protein source.

Choose healthy, plant-based fats. Think avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters.

Making these nutritious foods the staples of your diet will naturally squeeze out less healthy choices, and up your intake of fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and prebiotics. Even if you choose to include some high quality animal-based foods (like pastured eggs and fish), and splurge once in a while on can’t-live-without treats, making whole plant-based foods the bulk of your diet is the number one key to protecting your ticker.

Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees.