What does a diet for heart health actually look like?
Cardiovascular health should be a topic we talk about more. After all, cardiovascular disease takes more lives per year than cancer, stroke, neurological conditions, and COPD. Astounding, but true.
The advice available for cardiovascular disease spans the gamut of nutritional extremes, and can feel impossible to navigate. Different experts have varying opinions. For years a "low fat" diet was considered a "healthy" diet. Now we know better.
But, what works, scientifically? Let's dive in.
First off, cardiovascular health is impacted greatly by all the following: genetics, toxicant exposure and bioaccumulation, stress levels, activity levels, diet, gender, and epigenetics. So, where to start? Which factors will have the most protective payoff? Which factors can we partially, or fully control?
It's imperative to realize that while genetics play a significant roll in your health (cardiovascular or other, they do not write the book that dooms you to a lifetime of poor health), they can be modified by diet, environment, and lifestyle. So, that is where we will start, with nutrition.
[Note: limiting exposure to environmental toxicants such as persistent organic pollutants, xenobiotics, and heavy metals will greatly improve overall health, cardiovascular health included. But, for the sake of this article, we will focus on NUTRITION-BASED MODIFICATIONS that will greatly improve your cardiovascular health.]
If you stopped reading now, there is a golden nugget you should be sure take with you. For starters, it goes a little something like this... Get the sugar OUT. Get it out of your house, your pantry, your fridge, your meals, your car, your coffee, your snacks, your hands, your mouth - Hey, hey you, DROP THAT SUGAR!
You get the point, right? But, why?
Sugar is the chemical that gave cholesterol a bad reputation. When uncontrolled, sugar, which is "sticky", glycates (sticks to and damages) small vessels, cholesterol, artery walls, nerves, tendons, ligaments, brain tissue, and other important structures in our body. This leads to oxidative stress and inflammation.
Constant sugar consumption can lead to mood swings, stored fat, gout, acne, higher than optimal triglycerides, Diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, Metabolic Syndrome, delayed recovery from workouts, intense cravings, higher blood pressure, oh (!), and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. To really nail home the point: if there is ONE thing you can do on your journey toward optimal health, it's kick the sugar habit. Your heart will thank you.
Moving on. Along with avoiding sugar, it's time to address the FAT MYTHS.
TRUE: Saturated fats raise cholesterol
FALSE: All cholesterol is bad for you
TRUE: High triglycerides are not healthy (triglycerides = free fats in your blood)
FALSE: Eating saturated fats raises triglycerides
TRUE: Eating sugar raises triglycerides
FALSE: Saturated fat is bad
TRUE: Eating whole food sources of saturated fats can improve your cholesterol ratios
FALSE: Eating dietary cholesterol raises cholesterol
TRUE: Not all cholesterol is bad; it is beneficial to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol
FALSE: Cholesterol is a fat
TRUE: Cholesterol is a lipoprotein that carries fats and fat-soluble vitamins inside of it.
The take away on FATS is simple. Eat whole food sources of fats (eggs, fatty fish, pasture-raised meat, coconut, raw nuts, coconut oil, ghee and pasture butter, avocado, poultry). Do not cook with any oil, it will likely burn. Use solid fats like butter, coconut oil, and ghee to cook. Eat extra virgin olive oil cold, on your salads or in pesto, but avoid cooking with it. And whatever you do, don't eat vegetable oils.
Vegetable oils such as canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, and the like, are highly processed. The processing uses solvents, heat, bleaching, and other chemical and physical extraction and deodorizing methods, which oxidize the oil creating an overall harmful "food". Like sugar, vegetable oils cause oxidative stress and inflammation.
All right, you made it to the end. Here are some quick take-away points, which when followed can lead you to optimal cardiovascular health:
1. Decrease sugar consumption
Aim to eat less than 10 grams of added sugar per day. Do this by sticking to whole foods and avoiding packaged foods.
2. Eat more fish and supplement with high quality fish oil
Fish are a high quality source of protein with naturally occurring healthy fats called omega-3 fatty acids. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids (I like Nordic Naturals' Ultimate Omega the best) can help to decrease triglycerides.
3. Eat whole-food fats
See above. Stick with ghee, coconut oil, and pasture butter for cooking. Avoid vegetable oils. Eat nuts raw (heat oxidizes fats). Eat pasture-raised/grass-fed meats.
4. Stuff your face with vegetables (see a pattern here?)
Epidemiological studies that look at whole populations have concluded that diets that include the most vegetables are the healthiest in regard to heart health, blood pressure, blood sugar, hormones, cancer prevention, detoxification, and many other conditions. Beans and legumes are another heart-healthy food group you can nosh on.
5. Add more antioxidant-rich foods
Cacao, pomegranate concentrate, tea, beets, coffee, blue berries, turmeric, and aromatic spices are all rich in protective antioxidants.
6. Drop that cocktail and limit caffeine to 2 to 4 cups per day
Too much alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, as can too much caffeine. Overall, limit alcohol; it blunts detoxification and slows down the liver, as it can cause a "distraction" from the liver's normal duties.
7. Drink water. Seriously, adequate hydration foes a long way toward health.
Make sure your water is free of chloride, chemical pollutants, fluoride, and all heavy metals.
"...available evidence suggests that fluoride has a potential to cause major adverse human health problems, while having only a modest dental caries prevention effect."
8. Stop eating table salt and start eating REAL SALT
Table salt is sodium chloride. Tabel salt is synthetic. Sure it's "minerals", but like sugar it's void of any real nutritional value. EAT THE REAL SALT THAT CONTAINS ACTUAL MINERALS. Choose from Celtic salt (greenish color), Himalayan Pink Salt, "Real Salt" (pinkish color), or volcanic salt. These are salts that are harvested from there earth, not made in the lab. They contain supplemental minerals (hence there colors) and will not cause high blood pressure. Salt is an electrolyte. It allows your cells to be hydrated. It keeps your adrenals and water balance in optimal shape. Real salt is healthy. Avoid table salt.
The aim of these modifications is as follows:
1. Control blood glucose (aka blood sugar)
2. Keep triglycerides in a healthy range; lower them
3. Cultivate optimal cholesterol ratios
4. Raise HDL-C (aka high density lipoprotein cholesterol)
5. Bring blood pressure into a healthy range