Q&A with Lauren Blekkenhorst

24 Jun 2021

Research to develop better evidence for the vascular and metabolic health benefits of vegetables and their bioactive constituents.

Dr Lauren Blekkenhorst is a Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University. Her research aims to develop better evidence for the vascular and metabolic health benefits of vegetables and their bioactive constituents as well as finding ways to increase vegetable consumption at a population level to improve healthy ageing. She has expertise in the design and conduct of randomised controlled trials and observational studies that focus on the vascular and metabolic health benefits of vegetables and their bioactive components.

What are you currently researching?

My research project will explore the health benefits of specific types of vegetables and their protective bioactive components, as well as finding new and improved ways to encourage people to eat more vegetables every day to improve their heart health.

What difference will your research make to people’s cardiovascular health in Australia? 

Most Australians have had their lives impacted by cardiovascular disease, from losing a loved one to caring for their loved ones after a heart attack or stroke. The vast majority of these devastating events can be prevented by modifying diet and lifestyle earlier in life. In particular, increasing the intake of vegetables is fundamental for cardiovascular disease prevention. Despite this knowledge, over 90% of Australian adults are still not meeting the recommended 5 servings of vegetables every day, with most eating well below these recommendations. In addition, intake of the types of vegetables that may provide larger benefits for cardiovascular health are even lower. If my research can demonstrate that specific types of vegetables are superior when it comes to improving cardiovascular health, then a small achievable change of eating more of these vegetables every day, will cause a greater reduction in cardiovascular disease burden for the same level of change in other vegetables being eaten. Better understanding of the bioactive components of these vegetables will also inform why we should be increasing consumption of these vegetables in our diets.

What were some of the key findings of your PhD?

During my PhD, I discovered a strong link between eating specific vegetables, such as cruciferous (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale), allium (e.g. garlic, onion, leek) and leafy greens (e.g. spinach, lettuce, rocket), and their bioactives (e.g. nitrate), and cardiovascular health outcomes. My team and I were the first to publish on the potential long-term cardioprotective role of dietary nitrate, which is found predominantly in leafy green vegetables. I will now be able to delve deeper by researching the direct benefits of these vegetables and explore other novel bioactive compounds that are potentially responsible for health benefits.

How important was funding from the Heart Foundation for your work?

We all know that eating a wide variety of vegetables can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Being awarded with funding from the National Heart Foundation of Australia will allow me to delve deeper and investigate which specific vegetables provide the greatest reduction in risk. The funding will also enable me to explore particular novel components found in these vegetables. Vegetables contain hundreds of plant compounds and we are only just at the tip of the iceberg in understanding their effects. It is vital that we base our dietary recommendations on scientific evidence to help Australians achieve optimal health throughout life. With the help of the National Heart Foundation of Australia and a large interdisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians, I am now able to establish high quality evidence on which vegetables are the best for cardiovascular health, and why.

Do you have a message for Heart Foundation supporters? 

I hope that my research will enlighten and motivate Australians to increase their vegetable consumption and to make healthier diet and lifestyle choices. This may in turn help prevent the substantial burden cardiovascular disease has on loved ones, and the wider community. 

You can find a range of heart healthy recipes website to incorporate more vegetables into your everyday meals benefiting your heart health.