In Part 1 of Heart Health, I discussed the critical role that cholesterol and inflammation (CRP) play in your heart’s health. Their levels are related to what we eat. There are enough reliable nutritional studies to confidently say which diets prevent or even reverse heart disease and which promote it. Coronary heart disease (CHD) or arteriosclerosis, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, dementia and even erectile dysfunction are all related to each other. They all share a common underlying condition, which is preventable and treatable through diet. Refined sugars and refined carbohydrates, which convert easily to sugar, and cholesterol imbalance are the principle sources of the most common health problems in Western countries. Cultures and societies with low rates of heart disease have a heart healthy diet and more active lifestyles.
Data point to the fact that the lower the quantity of animal products in your diet the lower your chances of heart disease. A plant-centered diet has low levels of bad LDL cholesterol and is the most effective primary prevention for heart disease (J. Am. Acad. Nurse Practitioners, 2010). According to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2011), there is a 34% lower risk of CHD for those with diets higher in fruits and vegetables.
What is popularly known as the Mediterranean diet can cut the rate of CHD by as much as 70%. The key ingredients that make this diet effective are an increase in veggies, nuts, and olives and the elimination of processed foods and sugars and low animal fat consumption. Research and statistics clearly show that a plant-based or plant-centered diet high in fiber, low in saturated and trans fats (solid at room temperature) and sugar is optimal for keeping the heart healthy. A diet that emphasizes vegetables, legumes, fruits, unrefined whole grains and nuts is optimal. Nuts in particular show an amazing ability to reverse plaque progression in arteries and cut the risk of strokes (PREDIMED, 2014) For people who do not want to eat a plant-based diet, reduce the amount of red and white meat and eggs and instead eat fish with larger portions of vegetables, legumes, nuts and fruits.
Omega fatty acids play a key role in cell and hormonal function. One in particular, omega-3 fatty acid, helps reduce the presence of cardiovascular disease and inflammation and increases good HDL cholesterol while reducing LDL cholesterol. It is only available from certain food sources. Omega-3 is found in higher concentration in fish, like sardines, salmon, trout, cod and krill. For vegetarians and vegans, there are non-animal sources of omega-3, like flax and chia seeds, almonds, walnuts, aglae, mache, and olives. A 2010 study (Pmed) found that increasing polyunsaturated fat (found in vegetables like soybeans and olives) in place of saturated and trans fats from animals, results in a significant decrease in instances of heart disease.
Being overweight (particularly a large waist size) or obese is a significant risk factor for CHD as well as diabetes. Eating a low calorie diet and getting enough exercise is critical. In addition to helping maintain a healthy weight, apples, almonds, walnuts, chickpeas, grapes, and blueberries stand out as particularly beneficial for the heart. Refined flour and sugar can cause weight gain, glucose and insulin imbalances and inflammation, which creates the perfect conditions for heart disease and diabetes. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels found in diabetics, increases the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association estimates that at least 65% of diabetics die of some sort of heart or blood vessel disease.
People who ate soy, nuts and certain fibers were able to lower their cholesterol levels more than those who ate a diet low in saturated fat, thus further lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke (JAMA, 2011). Flavonoids (phytonutrients and antioxidants), found in fruits and vegetables are especially high in onions, citrus, green tea, berries, red grapes and wine, dark greens and chocolate, have a particularly beneficial effect on the heart. This is good news for chocolate lovers, if you eat chocolate with high coco levels and low sugar. Flavonoids can enhance the function of the lining of blood vessels and inhibit cellular inflammation in ways that exceed other compounds.
For maximum heart health, avoid foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, palm oil, cholesterol, and high-sodium. These are often found in large quantities in processed or packaged and junk foods. Most people consume nearly double the sodium they need, and many packaged foods and restaurants use higher than healthy quantities. High sodium also contributes to hypertension. The average person could easily cut their sodium intake by half and would benefit greatly and not miss it.
A healthy diet doesn’t need to be boring or difficult to achieve. You don’t need statin medication to lower bad cholesterol. Start with small changes, and your body will adapt. There are many more dietary options available now than in the past. Businesses and restaurants are changing to fit the needs of healthy-wise consumers.
Originally published as a two part series in Issues 18 and 19. Download the full issue here