Approximately 10,000 people die in Ireland from Cardiovascular Disease each year, accounting for 36% of deaths per annum That's despite the fact that 80% of all heart disease is deemed preventable
Heart disease is, in many cases, a lifestyle disease that is avoidable and, with the right focus, you can avoid it, too.
There are some pretty big risk factors including being a smoker and excess alcohol intake but risk factors also include being diabetic and being overweight (abdominal obesity in particular), physical inactivity and of course, stress (read my blog on the impact of stress on our health and dietary and lifestyle recommendations to help manage it Part 1 & Part 2).
What I want to cover in this article is which dietary changes you might start to make from today, to protect your heart. There’s fantastic news in this regard because a number of huge studies point to diet and lifestyle change being IT when it comes to prevention.
The INTERHEART study, published in the Lancet in 2004, followed 30,000 people in 52 countries. Researchers found that lifestyle changes could prevent at least 90 percent of all heart disease.
This was another big one: the EPIC study in 2009 looked at how 23,000 people adhered to 4 simple behaviours: not smoking, exercising 3.5 hours a week, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. Sticking to these four behaviours alone seemed to prevent 93% of cases of diabetes, 81% of cases of heart attacks, 50% of cases of strokes, and 36% of cases of all cancers.
What about cholesterol?
After decades of research failed to demonstrate a correlation between dietary cholesterol and heart disease, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans finally admitted that “cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” This refers to foods such as eggs and prawns.
A scientific review published in the Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology in 2018 dismissed many long-held myths about cholesterol and the benefit of lowering it.
The paper presents substantial evidence that total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels are not an indication of heart disease risk, and that statin treatment is of “doubtful benefit” as a form of primary prevention for this reason (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17512433.2018.1519391).
There can be many reasons for elevated cholesterol levels (such as genetics, poor diet, lack of bile flow and inability to break down fats efficiently) and finding the root cause is key.
A simple strategy for good health
Of course, everyone is individual, and there is no official ‘single diet’ that all humans should eat. Personalisation is important but a diet that reduces chronic inflammation (the root of many diseases) and manages weight is going to help your cardiovascular health.
There is one type of fat everyone should avoid, and it’s trans fats
I want to say a little something about fat because chances are, if you’ve heard one thing about staving off a heart attack, it’s ‘cut back on fat’ (and especially the saturated kind).
The success of some low-fat dietary models in weight loss is thought to be more likely due to the simultaneous reduction of sugar, refined carbohydrates and processed foods.
Dietary fat actually turns off fat production in your liver. Unlike carbohydrates and protein, dietary fat does not trigger your pancreas to secrete insulin.
There is one type of fat everyone should avoid, and it’s trans fats, a kind of Frankenstein fat added to food to improve shelf life and mouthfeel of products. One study actually found that the risk of coronary heart disease doubled with each 2 percent increase in calories from trans fats (Iqbal, 2014). Another researcher even concluded: “On a per-calorie basis, trans fats appear to increase the risk of CHD more than any other micronutrient.” (Mozaffarian et al., 2006).
The real villains
The real villains in the piece are refined grains, ultra-processed foods (those with huge lists of ingredients) and sugar. During processing, refined grains are stripped of the bran and germ, two parts of the grain kernel that contain a wealth of nutrients. The final product is starch with next to no nutritional value, providing little more than carbohydrates and calories.
Added sugars from foods like sweets, desserts, juice and soft drinks can spike blood sugar levels, damaging the blood vessels, overloading the liver and increasing the risk of heart disease.
Refined carbohydrates can be found in a wide variety of foods, including white bread, pasta and rice, muffins, cakes, cookies, crackers, and bagels. Unfortunately, these foods make up a pretty good chunk of the modern Western diet and may be linked to a higher risk of heart disease. One study from China found that a higher carbohydrate intake, mainly from refined grains, was associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease among 117,366 adults (Yu et al., 2013).
Sugar is one of the main culprits of heart disease. Added sugars from foods like sweets, desserts, juice and soft drinks can spike blood sugar levels, damaging the blood vessels, overloading the liver and increasing the risk of heart disease.
Interestingly, a study from Harvard School of Public Health actually found that participants who drank the highest amount of sugar-sweetened beverages had a 20 percent higher relative risk of developing coronary heart disease than those who drank the lowest amount (de Koning et al., 2012).
What this means
A lower refined carbohydrate diet is recommended to balance blood sugar and therefore reduce insulin and blood glucose levels. Elevated insulin is a major risk factor for heart disease and promotes inflammation. You’re also likely to lose weight on a blood sugar balancing diet, and that in itself will reduce the risk for many chronic diseases, including heart disease and high blood pressure.
Eat a source of protein at every meal and snack. This can be any fish/ seafood, poultry, meat, nuts, seeds, tofu, eggs. Given you probably eat enough meat already and many people don’t eat nearly enough vegetable protein, see if you can bring in more fish and more vegetable sources of protein over the week. Ideally, eat two to three vegetable-based protein meals weekly. Replace animal-based protein meals with lentils, legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds, for example. If you’re a fish eater, get in wild-caught fish, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, twice a week.
2. Rainbow foods
Eat a rainbow a day. Have as many different colours a day as possible for an antioxidant rich diet. Aim for 7 a day and ideally 5 from veg. Think berries, pomegranate, leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes, courgette, aubergine, onions mushrooms etc. See our "Eat the rainbow" chart to help you to eat a diverse range of these foods a day. Don’t forget your herbs and spices too – green tea, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, basil, thyme for example.
Fibre is a great addition, the soluble kind you’ll find in oats, lentils, split peas, flaxseed, citrus fruits and apples.All of those are heart-healthy choices. From the insoluble category, eat nuts and whole grains.
4. Healthy fats
Some fats are healthy, and let’s not forget that fat is actually essential for life. Get your fat from avocados, oily fish, nuts and seeds.
Think carefully about the quality (what kind) and the quantity (how much) of starchy carbs like bread, pasta, cereals, rice. Focus on wholemeal over white, brown rice over long grain, oats over refined cereals.
6. Processed meat
In recent years, there have been numerous studies connecting processed meats, like hot dogs, salami and tinned meat, to a range of adverse effects on health. Not surprisingly, processed meats can also negatively affect heart health, so best to give them a wide berth.
Remove as much sugar as you can from your diet as this is the real villain in the tale. That means saving sugary treats for special occasions and holidays and, most of the time, ditching breakfast cereals, cakes, cookies, pastries, and so on, and checking the label of jarred sauces, where sugar often lurks.
8. Fizzy pop
Avoid fizzy soft drinks. Eliminating soft drinks is one of the best things that everyone can do for their heart. Besides being laden with controversial chemicals and unhealthy ingredients, soft drinks are also brimming with added sugars.
What you need to focus on is real food, food as close to how it is in nature. Your body doesn't know what’s going on when you shovel in heavily processed or chemically altered foods.
Getting your food right alongside the commitment to regularly de-stress, move your body and prioritise sleep is not always easy to do on your own. It is always helpful to have someone – like me – in the wings personalising your diet and showing you how to incorporate it into your daily life, helping you make and break habits, keeping you motivated to follow your plan for long enough that you really see a shift in your health.
If you would like to discuss dietary and lifestyle changes to improve your heart health then drop us an email today and we'll get back to you shortly!
In the meantime see our delicious sweet potato and lentil curry recipe with lots of heart friendly ingredients. It's really tasty and great for batching and freezing to make healthy eating even easier!