If you read about healthy lifestyles, fitness and health regularly, some of these tips may seem like old territory — but wait — you may not know some of the finer details that I’ll share here.
1. Eat Less Animal Fats and Cholesterol and More Unsaturated Fats and Plant Foods
There’s no doubt that diets high in animal fats, saturated fat and cholesterol and trans fats, and low in unsaturated fats and plant foods cause heart disease. But what about plant foods high in saturated fat but no cholesterol? Saturated fats are found in large amounts in palm oil and coconut oil and some of these saturated fats also block cholesterol receptors that help keep cholesterol in the blood under control. However, heart-healthy foods like nuts, olive oil and avocado also have saturated fats in percentages up to around 15%. So what’s the difference?
Apart from the absolute amount of saturated fat in each, here’s the thing: nuts, olives and avocados and their fats also have high amounts of polyunsaturated and, or, monounsaturated fats and fibre, which likely offset or reverse any damaging effects of their saturated fats. The overall effect is to lower cholesterol. Palm kernel oil contains over 80% saturated fat and coconut oil over 90% saturated fat and are mostly eaten as oils and not as whole foods.
In addition, there is evidence that a synergy exists between consuming saturated fat and dietary cholesterol in a regular diet. The bacon and eggs fried in butter or palm oil is not a good combo.
Regarding animal fats, it should be pointed out that oily fish like sardines have plenty of polyunsaturated omega-3 fats that are strongly recommended in heart disease prevention even though in this context they are “animal fats.” Also, meats contain some monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats, especially if grown free-range or grass-fed organic. Naturally lean meats are preferred. The fatty meats are also more likely to contain toxic contaminants like dioxins, PCBs and chlorinated organic pesticides, which are stored in fatty tissue and which some studies show increase cardiovascular risk.
Heart disease risk is further complicated by the fact that some people are cholesterol responders and in these people, blood cholesterol increases in response to cholesterol (and saturated fat) in the diet as a result of genetic susceptibility. And you can’t tell if you’re one of them unless you monitor your diet and cholesterol numbers. In others, regular consumption of cholesterol foods does not raise cholesterol appreciably. However, diabetics seem to be particularly adversely affected by dietary cholesterol — especially egg consumption — and second, if you already have high cholesterol numbers, lowering dietary cholesterol may reduce your blood cholesterol. There’s a difference between steady state consumption and the effect of reducing consumption — even in non-responders.
Overall, that’s why the American Heart Association still recommends low-cholesterol diets of no more than 300 milligrams/day for healthy people and less than 200 milligrams/day for people with existing heart disease or risk, and a saturated fat intake of less than 7%.
2. Consume Less Added Sugar
Sugar is a concentrated form of food energy, so naturally if you’re trying to maintain or lose weight to improve your heart health it’s a good idea to limit your consumption of sugars — cane, beet or corn syrup, or honey for that matter — it’s all “sugar.”
Okay, so sugar can be fattening but at least it’s not saturated fat or cholesterol . . . but wait, are you sure? When you eat too much sugar, especially the fructose part of it, the liver turns fructose into . . . yes, you guessed it, a saturated fat called palmitic acid — one of the worst ones for raising blood cholesterol. Fruit is not going to be a problem because the fructose is in smaller quantities and it has the fibre to slow down it’s digestion and to prevent any conversion to fat. This is called lipogenesis. An apple has about 5 grams of fructose and a can of soft drink about 25 grams. Drink more than a few soft drinks a week and you could be well on the way to the fat farm plus a higher cholesterol reading.
I always like to point out that fit, athletic people who do a lot of hard training have more choice when it comes to consuming added sugars, in fact sugars can be a valuable tool in meeting energy requirements and generally the fructose does not get turned into fat but is converted to valuable glucose for energy.
3. Consume Fewer Refined Carbohydrates Unless You Exercise a Lot
The story with starches like white bread, white rice and cakes and pastries — apart from the hidden fat and salt in the refined and processed foods — is a little different. Starches end up as glucose, which is not as easily converted to fat because it can be stored in the body in liver and muscle (and fat cells) for future use. Again, athletes and heavy exercisers of normal weight have a little more choice when it comes to refined carbs. The quickly assimilated white bread roll and sports drink at the end of a tough training session could be more help than hindrance.
If you don’t exercise, or if you’re unfit and overweight, starchy carbohydrates are best eaten with plenty of fibre in whole food form if possible. This will slow down digestion and provide better blood sugar and perhaps appetite control. Use the glycemic index (GI) if you like, but I’m not a big fan of the GI. In my view you’re better off aiming for a high-fibre diet up around the 0.5 grams fibre per kilogram of body weight. That means a lot of plant food in the diet — nuts, beans, seeds, fruit and veges and whole grains.
4. If You Drink Alcohol, Keep It Moderate
It’s not yet clear whether the reasonably certain heart benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are more pronounced with red wine than for other alcoholic drinks. The research data are a little mixed from what I can make of it. Even so, theoretically the red and purple polyphenols in red wine and perhaps grape juice, including resveratrol, may have additional benefits. Overall though, there seems little doubt from the accumulated research that moderate alcohol consumption lowers cardiovascular risk compared with abstinence. That’s in the range to two drinks a day for men and one for women.
It gets a little tricky because alcohol (ethanol) is toxic for the heart and cardiovascular system at higher doses, resulting in increases in blood pressure and even cardiomyopathy at pathologic rates of consumption, along with a wide range of other adverse effects at excessive consumption levels. In addition, ethanol is also a reasonably strong carcinogen. Breast cancer risk in women increases from about one drink a day and trends upward. Ethanol is a known cause of cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, bowel (colon and rectum), liver and female breast. Alcohol is a potent toxin no doubt, but the dose makes the poison.
If you don’t drink, it’s difficult for anyone to tell you that you should — including me — and your doctor probably won’t.
5. Do a Combination of Aerobic Exercise and Weights
Aerobic exercise or cardio is a must for building cardiovascular fitness and strength. It builds heart and lung capacity for oxygen processing and also increases capillary blood supply to the muscles and probably even collateral blood supply in the heart muscle to provide support for the coronary arteries plus additional beneficial changes to artery and heart function.
Yet cardio like walking, running or swimming can be a little unbalanced, even though the benefits are undisputed. By adding resistance or strength training you train the whole body and consequently develop regional fitness as well in a way that running or swimming cannot. For example, by building muscle and maintaining muscle as you age, you provide additional storage sites for glucose disposal. Muscle loss and higher blood glucose readings need not be an inevitable consequence of ageing. High blood glucose levels are a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. Weight training also improves bones, balance, flexibility and strength. What’s not to like!
6. Don’t Smoke and Maintain Normal Weight
No list would be complete without these two somewhat obvious risk factors. Get there any way you can.
In total, that’s a relatively uncomplicated list. From a lifestyle perspective, you don’t have to attend to much more than these six measures to keep your heart in good nick — except you must get regular checkups because genetics and family history play a large part in your heart disease risk.