- Your diet can be both a risk factor and a protective factor when it comes to your heart health.
- “Heart-healthy” diets like the Mediterranean and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diets are popular, but they’re not the only option if you want to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
- The Portfolio diet emphasizes adding more plant-based foods to your diet to get heart health benefits like lower cholesterol.
When you hear “heart-healthy diet,” you probably think first of the Mediterranean and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diets. But a new study found that a less well-known diet could also help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. People who stuck with the Portfolio diet long-term had a 14% lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.
Here’s what experts want you to know about the Portfolio diet, including how you can make its principles part of your heart-healthy eating plan.
What Is the Portfolio Diet?
The Portfolio diet is a plant-based eating pattern that was developed in the early 2000s, Hailey Crean, RD, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist, told Verywell.
The Portfolio diet features many of the “gold standard” practices for heart-healthy eating: It’s rich in healthy fats and antioxidant-rich foods like produce and nuts and low in added salt and sugar.
Many of the core principles of the Portfolio diet are not new, and Crean said it’s similar to previous diet recommendations aimed at helping people lower their cholesterol, like the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet.
What makes the Portfolio diet unique is that it focuses on what people can add to their diet instead of putting limits on specific foods or nutrients.
Crean said that the diet encourages people to have a “portfolio” of cholesterol-lowering foods like nuts, plant proteins, soluble fiber, and plant sterols.
Here’s what Crean said is recommended daily if you’re following the Portfolio diet.
- 42 grams/day of nuts
- 50 grams/day of plant proteins from soy products, beans, peas, or lentils
- 20 grams/day of soluble (viscous) fiber from vegetables, grains, and fruit (including oats, barley, eggplant, okra, oranges, and apples)
- 2 grams/day of phytosterols from a supplement
The Portfolio diet has some similarities to the Mediterranean diet, primary study author Andrea Glenn, PhD, RD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the University of Toronto who was the primary author of the study, told Verywell.
“Both diets are low in saturated fat and include foods such as nuts, olive oils, fruits, vegetables, and beans,” she said.
As for the main difference between the Mediterranean diet and the Portfolio diet, Glenn said that the latter has “more soy products, as well as more focus on viscous fiber foods such as oats, barley, okra, eggplant.” Overall, the Portfolio Diet is a bit more plant-based than the Mediterranean diet. But it doesn’t have to be 100% plant-based.
According to Glenn, the general guidance is to replace animal products that are high in saturated fat with portfolio foods. For example, you can use olive oil instead of butter and swap tofu or beans for red and processed meat.
How Does the Portfolio Diet Help Your Heart?
Studies have shown that following the Portfolio dietary pattern is linked to improved cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors. However, there isn’t much data showing the effects of following the diet for a long time.
In the recent study, the researchers looked at the relationship between complying with the Portfolio diet and the total risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke.
The researchers followed 73,924 women in the Nurses’ Health Study (1984–2016), 92,346 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II (1991–2017), and 43,970 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986–2016). None of the participants had cardiovascular disease or cancer at the start of the study.
The researchers had data from food frequency questionnaires that were completed every four years, along with participants’ medical data on heart health outcomes.
Looking at follow-up over almost 30 years, the researchers found that the participants who had stuck with the Portfolio diet guidelines the longest had a lower risk of total cardiovascular disease and stroke.
People with the highest Portfolio diet compliance had a 14% lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke compared to people with the lowest diet compliance.
How to Follow the Portfolio Diet
If you want to get started with the diet, Crean suggests choosing one or two of the recommendations from the Portfolio and building from there.
Glenn agreed, adding that you can see benefits just by adding a few of the components to your diet (like eating more nuts and soy). As you get comfortable with the additions, Glenn said you can try working in more components of the diet, like viscous fiber or healthy oils, to get more benefits.
Below are a few ideas on how you can begin exploring the Portfolio diet.
Swap Animal Protein for Walnuts
A recent study showed that replacing some meat in your diet with walnuts can improve your overall nutrition by increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and several key vitamins and minerals. The swap could also help lower cholesterol.
Another study found a link between regular daily walnut consumption and sustained lower levels of cholesterol in older adults who included walnuts in their diet for two years. The researchers also noted that eating 1/2 cup of walnuts daily for those two years did not lead to weight gain.
Avocados are an excellent source of plant-based viscous fiber. In fact, 30% of the fiber in an avocado is soluble fiber, which keeps your digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol and can help lower your risk of heart disease.
Avocados are also a great source of heart-healthy fats, micronutrients, and plant compounds. Plus, they’re the richest known fruit source of phytosterols.
A meta-analysis on avocado and LDL “bad” cholesterol found that avocado intake has a medium to large effect on LDL cholesterol levels.
A 30-year study found that people who ate at least one avocado a week had a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease compared to participants who never or rarely ate avocados.
Avocados are also an easy food to add to your existing diet, as they can be part of salads, smoothies, and sandwiches.
Consider a Phytosterol Supplement
Phytosterols can be a beneficial addition to a heart-healthy diet because they have cholesterol-lowering effects. If you’re interested in trying a phytosterol supplement, talk to your healthcare provider about the options.
The recommended daily dose of phytosterols is approximately 2 grams, but you’ll want to work with your provider to figure out the right dose for you.
You’ll also want to think about the form of the supplement that fits your needs best—phytosterol supplements come in capsules, tablets, or fortified foods.
When you’re considering your options, choose a reputable supplement brand that follows quality manufacturing practices and has its products tested by a third party.
What This Means for You
Research suggests that the Portfolio diet could offer cardiovascular health benefits. You can explore the diet by choosing more plant-based foods, especially those with heart-healthy fats, soluble fiber, and plant sterols.