Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is no joke. It's the number one cause of death worldwide. In general, CVD is caused by a reduction or complete obstruction of blood flow to the heart or other parts of the body. Blood brings cells the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive; if blood cannot reach them, they die.
Atherosclerosis, the hardening and narrowing of blood vessels, is a slowly developing, chronic, degenerative disease and is one of the most important risk factors for CVD. What causes blood vessels to harden and narrow? Buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) and inflammation of the blood vessel walls. These restrict blood flow and can lead to heart disease, stroke, aneurysms, and blood clots - all of which can be life threatening.
Good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle can very significantly reduce your risk for developing atherosclerosis and CVD. I will discuss lifestyle in the next post, but today let's talk nutrition.
- Eat real food. Eat real, whole foods. Do your best to eliminate unhealthy packaged foods, which are inflammatory and rob you of your health - cardiovascular and otherwise. Moreover, stop eating "low-fat" versions of food. Eat the real, full-fat, actual thing.
- Eat high-quality fats. At this point you know that monounsaturated fats like olive oil are good for your health, but did you know that high-quality saturated fats are too? Contrary to popular belief, saturated fats do not cause heart disease (1)! In fact, good saturated fats like coconut oil, grass-fed meats, and ghee are healthy components of a diet, even one aimed at reducing CVD risk.
- Consume omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely anti-inflammatory and are therefore an important part of a heart-healthy diet (and any healthy diet, for that matter). Eat fatty fish like salmon at least twice a week to get a healthy dose. In addition, I recommend taking fish oil or cod liver oil supplements to boost omega-3 intake, but make sure these come from a trustworthy manufacturer. Other (much lesser) sources of omega-3s include walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds, algae, and grass-fed beef.
- Reduce sodium intake. High sodium intake can cause elevated blood pressure, which increases a person's risk for CVD. Hypertension (high blood pressure) puts additional demands on the heart muscle and damages blood vessels. It can also dislodge plaque from the arterial walls, allowing the plaque to act as a blood clot that restricts blood flow even more.
- Reduce alcohol intake. Like sodium, alcohol can cause blood pressure to rise.
- Avoid industrial vegetable oils. Industrial seed oils (sunflower, corn, soy, cottonseed, safflower, etc.) are high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which promote inflammation. This is another reason to avoid packaged foods, as virtually all packaged food is made with these unhealthy industrial vegetable oils.
- Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit. Dietary antioxidants, which vegetables and fruits are high in, help decrease inflammation and thus lower risk of CVD.
- Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods. You know that vegetables are chock full of nutrients and are an important part of a healthy diet, but certain foods that are commonly mislabeled as unhealthy, specifically egg yolks and organic, grass-fed animal products (including organ meats), are in fact even more nutrient-dense and should be consumed.
- Reduce sugar intake. This means traditional sweeteners as well as simple carbohydrates like potatoes, rice, pasta, and bread, which immediately turn into sugar in the body and cause blood sugar to spike. Elevated blood sugar causes inflammation and oxidative damage, both of which increase risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Eat fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, and kefir. Fermented foods have a number of health benefits, but their particular benefit to cardiovascular health is that they contain vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 is used to deposit calcium in appropriate locations (e.g. bones, teeth) and therefore prevents calcium from being deposited in dangerous places like the arteries.
- Eat foods high in B vitamins, particularly folate, B6 and B12. A deficiency in any of these can cause homocysteine, which is strongly associated with increased risk for CVD, to build up in the blood.