February is the month for celebrating love and hearts – not just because of Valentine’s Day, but also in honor of American Heart Month. Cardiovascular disease (CVD or “heart disease”) is the leading cause of death among American men and women – causing 1 in 4 deaths every year. That’s a scary statistic, but the good news is that heart disease can often be prevented and/or reversed with diet and lifestyle modifications.
Since nutrition is my specialty, I’ll focus primarily on dietary strategies, but there are other important factors that can help prevent your risk for heart disease. These include stress reduction, sleeping 7-8 hours a night, and getting some form of physical activity 4-5 times a week (choose movement that you enjoy!). Now onto the dietary strategies…
There are a variety of diets that have purported benefits when it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease. From paleo and keto, to DASH and Mediterranean, the thing that most of these diets have in common is the focus on real, whole foods, and the reduction of processed, refined foods. While I don’t believe that one diet works for everyone, the Mediterranean Diet is one of the most studied dietary interventions when it comes to CVD; it’s been shown that people eating a traditional Mediterranean diet have much lower risk of CVD. So, it’s a good place to start. While the Mediterranean region comprises 16 different countries, people in these areas tend to eat a similar diet: whole, unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, dairy, extra virgin olive oil, spices, modest amounts of poultry, fish and red meat, and red wine (cheers!). It’s the combination of all these foods, rather than the consumption of one food in isolation, that is responsible for the cardiovascular benefits of this eating style.
Below are the main tenants of the Mediterranean diet, which you can incorporate into your daily eating routine and modify according to your cultural background, food preferences, or dietary restrictions (lactose intolerant, sensitivity to gluten, low FODMAP, etc.)
- Low glycemic impact – glycemic impact simply means how foods affect your blood sugar (glucose). Ideally, blood sugar should remain relatively constant, without huge spikes or drops. Eating mostly low glycemic foods will helps stabilize blood sugar. This means nutrient dense foods that are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients – i.e. most vegetables, lower sugar fruits, whole grains, legumes, protein and fat. High glycemic foods – the ones to avoid – are the “white” carbs (sugar, white rice, pasta, bread, etc.); these quickly increase your blood sugar, which can lead to insulin resistance, and eventually type 2 diabetes.
- High in fiber – see a pattern here? High fiber foods not only slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream, but they help maintain healthy cholesterol levels, support beneficial bacteria in the gut, prevent constipation, and help form healthy stools.
- Low in simple sugars – foods full of refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup are high in calories, but low in nutrients. Things like soda, cookies and pastries not only increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, they quickly turn into fat once consumed. When craving a sweet treat, choose a more heart healthy option like dried fruit or berries with some dark chocolate – all sweet and delicious, but also a good source of nutrients.
- Balanced quality fats – for a long time, fat and cholesterol were the scapegoat for heart disease. But recent research has debunked that myth and has shown that it’s not the amount of fat that is important, but the type of fat. Fats to avoid: trans fats – anything with hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil on the nutrition label – as well as excessive fats from synthetically processed seed oils like vegetable and canola oil. Remove fried foods and shelf stable baked goods. Fats to embrace: monounsaturated fats like olive oil, avocado oil and avocados; omega-3 fats from fish, seafood, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts; and omega-6 fats from nuts and seeds.
- Well-rounded in phytonutrients – this is where the wine comes in (yay!). Red wine is high in a phytonutrient (beneficial chemical compound like an antioxidant) called resveratrol that has been shown to be supportive of cardiovascular health. Many foods contain similarly beneficial phytonutrients – too many to list – so just remember that phytochemicals are responsible for giving foods their bright colors. An easy way to get your phytonutrients is to “eat a rainbow” of brightly colored foods at each meal.
Heart disease occurs for a variety of reasons and each person’s bio-individuality should be considered when getting to the root cause. Nevertheless, the above suggestions will be useful, whether the cause of heart disease is from poor diet, unmanaged stress, lack of sleep, underlying infection, or genetic factors. So replace that cupcake with a cup of berries and give your heart a healthier life!