By. Garrett Guzman
Did you know?
About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year (one in every four deaths), making it the leading cause of death in both men and women. – Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017
The Common Thread
Picking up where we left off last week, what “diet” or perhaps what foods are the best choices with regards to decreasing one’s risk of heart disease, and in fact, every disease? See, the beauty of what I am about to share with you is that quality food choices are simply quality food choices, regardless of what disorder or disease you may be battling (if any). While there are specific foods or food categories that may need to be minimized or eliminated (perhaps short-term or long-term) based on an individual’s goals or current health status, most individuals will find that the following advice will work well to improve their health, period. Having been diagnosed with various autoimmune diseases, I absolutely realize and respect the importance of nutritional bio-individuality, as each person benefits from certain foods or food categories in varying degrees. However, there seems to be a common thread amongst those foods or food categories that improve health, in this case reducing heart disease, and those that have a strong correlation in worsening health outcomes, which we will explore further in our next article.
I always like to start with the good, call it a glass half-full perspective.
So, what foods or food categories have been shown to have the greatest impact on reducing the incidence of heart disease? Well, your mom was probably right when she told you to keep eating your veggies. There is a significant amount of research that shows the greater the consumption of fruits and vegetables, the lower the incidence of coronary heart disease and stroke. According to the Journal of Nutrition, fruit and vegetable consumption is inversely associated with the occurrence of heart disease, with every portion (half cup in most cases) decreasing one’s risk of cardiovascular disease by 4% (1). An additional 2017 review of 95 studies from around the world showed that ten servings of fruits and vegetables per day (equivalent of 5 cups, on average) reduces cardiovascular disease by 28% and premature death by 31% (2).
What about nuts and seeds? Well, in addition to dramatically lowering the incidence of heart disease, they have also been shown to significantly decrease the incidence of many forms of cancer and all-cause mortality (3). There is emerging evidence that nuts and seeds lower oxidative stress, inflammation and vascular reactivity, in addition to lowering blood pressure, visceral adiposity and metabolic syndrome, which are all significant risk factors in the development of heart disease (4).
What about meat and fish? This is where the research gets interesting. In a 2017 review of the relationship between red meat consumption and cardiovascular risk, it was shown that nearly all of the studies that have wrongfully accused red meat of causing heart disease were actually accusing processed meat of causing heart disease (5). And despite the presence of heme iron and carnitine, which has gotten a lot of bad press as of late, the modest consumption of unprocessed red meat appears to pose no threat to the development of coronary artery disease. In fact, a 2017 study showed that unprocessed beef, pork and poultry strongly reduced the incidence of cardiovascular disease, in addition to cardiovascular mortality, with poultry having the most substantial effect on these outcomes (6). Fish consumption (in part due to its omega-3 fatty acid content) has been consistently associated with a reduced risk of atherosclerosis, in addition to reduced coronary mortality among patients with pre-existing coronary disease (7).
These are the whole foods that appear to have the greatest amount of research to support their heart-healthy benefits. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the foods and food categories that will help support your heart will also help support nearly every organ of your body. I like to view the body from a holistic perspective, understanding the close interconnection between one organ and another. In that same light, I like to view the foods we eat as whole foods (as this is what our nutrition is designed to be based around), rather than discussing isolated nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.). You may have also noticed that I did not discuss any specific macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, fat) profile with regards to their beneficial role in the prevention of heart disease. This is due to the simple fact that heart disease has been shown to be nearly non-existent in various cultures from around the world who consume wildly different amounts of each macronutrient. But, what do these cultures all have in common? They consume the above-mentioned, heart-healthy whole foods, simply in different amounts and combinations. Moral: EAT REAL FOOD.
1. Dauchet, Luc et al. (2006). Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. The Journal of Nutrition, 136 (10): 2588–2593, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/136.10.2588
2. Dagfinne, Aune et al. (2017). Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality—a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. International Journal of Epidemiology, 46 (3) 1029–1056, https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyw319
3. Dagfinne, Aune et al. (2016). Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, all-cause and cause-specific mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMC Medicine, (14) 207. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-016-0730-3
4. Ros, Emilio (2010). Health Benefits of Nut Consumption. Nutrients.(7): 652–682. 10.3390/nu2070652
5. Bronzato, Sofia (2017). A Contemporary Review of the Relationship between Red Meat Consumption and Cardiovascular Risk. Int J Prev Med.(8) 40. 10.4103/ijpvm.IJPVM_206_16
6. Park, Kyong et al. (2017). Unprocessed Meat Consumption and Incident Cardiovascular Diseases in Korean Adults: The Korean Genome and Epidemiology Study (KoGES). Nutrients.9 (5): 498. 10.3390/nu9050498
7. Hu, Frank B. et al. (2002). Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Women. JAMA. 287 (14):1815-1821. 10.1001/jama.287.14.1815