Nutrition and Cardiovascular Health
For many Americans, health problems can be linked to the foods we eat. The Western diet unfortunately consists of many refined, manufactured and processed foods. Considering this, the cardiovascular system (heart, blood vessels) can be susceptible to damage from suboptimal diets. The cardiovascular system comprises of the heart, vessels, and the blood that pumps through it nourishing our bodies.
Importance of Heart Health
In the United States, over 2,000 people die of heart-related/cardiovascular disease each day. This includes heart attack and stroke (cardiovascular events). This number is the equivalent of one person who dies every 40 seconds, which is a grim statistic. The risk factors for heart attack and stroke include hypertension, diabetes and obesity. One of the most important ways to combat cardiovascular disease is with the diet.
Unless Americans change their diets, heart disease will continue to plague society as one of our silent and deadliest killers. Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy solution except for people to change their eating habits for a lifetime.
How Does Nutrition Factor In?
Years ago, doctors used to believe that dietary fat was the culprit behind weight gain and heart disease. As a result, low-fat diets became widespread and were marketed heavily. The lower-fat diets generally contained unhealthy amounts of processed carbohydrates (sugars), which has been linked with today’s worsening obesity epidemic.
In modern times, doctors have a better understanding of the importance of healthy fats and their role in a balanced, heart-healthy diet.
Be Wary of “Fad” Diets
Many fad diets have been marketed to the public over the past several decades. Generally, the focus of these diets is to lose weight, but at the risk of creating other health problems. Here are some examples.
- Low-fat diets may harm the body by limiting the amount of “good fat,” such as omega-3 fatty acids, that should be consumed in adequate amounts. Instead, refined carbohydrates are substituted. This could raise someone’s LDL cholesterol if refined carbohydrates are used as a substitute for fat.
- Low-carb diets may increase levels of “bad fat,” such as trans-fatty acid or saturated fats, and could reduce the amount of micronutrients and phytonutrients (vitamin and mineral) intake.
- Low-calorie diets cannot be sustainable over time as they rob the body of essential nutrients, and in many cases, these diets allow for processed or unhealthy food as long as a patient maintains a certain caloric intake.
Fad diets generally don’t look at the body as a whole. Instead, they focus on one particular item and are quite short-sighted. Rather, people who want to improve their nutrition and their heart health should change their eating habits completely to be mindful of what they put in their bodies.
How to Improve a Diet
Food has a tremendous influence on heart health, which is why it’s so crucial that patients focus on eating habits and appropriate nutrition. Once someone makes it a habit of eating healthy, the process becomes easier and second-nature.
Eat more healthy fats
Instead of labeling fats as “good” or “bad,” it is wise for patients to focus on consuming more fats that reduce inflammation and promote cardiovascular wellness. Reducing inflammation is key to reduction of heart attack and stroke. These are commonly known as the “healthy” fats, and it is important to eat more of them.
“Healthy” fat food sources to include
- Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils).
- Natural oils (olive oil, coconut oil)
- Nuts like walnuts or cashews
Fats to limit or keep to a minimum
- Saturated fat (ingest in moderation)
- Hydrogenated oils
- Animal sources of fat
Limiting high glycemic index foods
Easily absorbable carbohydrates (sugars) can have a negative effect on a person’s health from a cardiovascular standpoint. Refined, manufactured and processed foods generally allow rapid absorption of carbohydrates, which can increase the risk of diabetes (a major cardiovascular risk factor). Foods that allow rapid absorption of these carbohydrates are considered high glycemic index foods. Furthermore, these processed foods can also cause obesity and other health problems.
One of the quickest ways to improve the diet is to increase the intake of vegetables. Eating across the color spectrum of vegetables insures that all of the different kinds of phytonutrients (vitamins) are adequately consumed. Patients should consume dark green, red, orange, yellow and purple foods on a daily basis to get enough of these good foods. The colors of these foods come from the phytonutrients that humans need for optimum health.
Dark green vegetables include green leaf lettuce, kale and spinach. Red occurs in tomatoes and red peppers. Orange comes from carrots and pumpkins. People can purchase squash and yellow peppers for yellow. Purple foods include eggplant.
Supplements to Consider
For patients who lack certain foods in their diet, supplements can ensure they get enough nutrients to help their cardiovascular health. Doctors can closely monitor someone’s response to supplements and warn of any adverse reactions with medications.
A Word on Magnesium
Many Americans are not getting enough magnesium in their diets. Poor food choices in addition to lack of soil replenishment for growing fruits and vegetables lead to less and less magnesium found naturally in foods. Lack of this mineral can lead to a variety of problems such as insulin resistance, higher blood pressure and higher cholesterol. A supplement can improve this situation, but eating the right food is a better way to get the required daily amount. Magnesium-rich foods include beans and dark leafy green vegetables. Magnesium supplements may have unwanted side effects such as stomach upset and diarrhea.
Fish oil is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These omega-3 fatty acids reduce global inflammation in the body and can help reduce cardiovascular risks. Be sure to speak to an experienced practitioner prior to starting any supplements. Otherwise, fatty and oily fish such as salmon present a great choice for getting omega-3s naturally. Sockeye salmon generally has the least amount of mercury in their systems.
Dietary fiber does several things for someone’s diet, such as improving the amount of good gut flora in the intestines and aiding digestion. Humans metabolize food more efficiently when there is a healthy amount of dietary fiber in the diet. Like magnesium, it’s preferable to increase fiber intake naturally by eating high-fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes.
Every little bit helps when it comes to dietary changes and heart health. Diet may not be the only reason a patient suffers from heart disease, which is why doctors should examine as many factors as possible when it comes to cardiovascular health.
The Key to Dieting
Diet isn’t a temporary thing when it comes to cardiovascular health. Patients can’t spend two months on a diet, go back to eating the foods they consumed before making lifestyle changes and then expect the changes in their cardiovascular system to stick. Doctors should impress upon patients that a diet is a lifestyle change and a lifestyle choice. Although making changes may seem difficult at first, once people develop new routines with dieting they pick up good habits rather than reverting to bad habits.
There are plenty of choices when it comes to how people eat foods. Fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts are the best choices, but frozen and canned varieties do have some healthy options that are low in sodium and aren’t processed very much. Practitioners should consider the health benefits of organic foods versus non-organic varieties based on scientific studies regarding chemicals on crops. Although going organic may not be possible at first for some patients, at least starting them on more vegetables gets them thinking about eating healthier as it relates to cardiovascular health.
Other Factors That Lead to Heart Disease
In addition to diet, several other factors are solidly linked to cardiovascular disease. These factors include amount of stress, the presence of a smoking habit, body shape, and the level of physical activity. Just like a diet, someone who improves any of these factors is on the right track to better cardiovascular health
It’s no secret that the stress people face is quite high in modern society. \Stress can alter hormonal levels, causing more cardiovascular risks. It can also promote unhealthy eating habits, such as overeating or not eating enough.
Reducing and eliminating stress comes in many forms. The beauty of stress reduction is that patients get to choose what methods work best for them. Spending a few hours reading each night, fishing on the weekends, working jigsaw puzzles, breathing exercises, meditation, yoga completing sudoku puzzles and so much more can alleviate the stress of dealing with everyday life. Several scientific studies tout stress reduction in patients, including meditation, pet ownership and spending more time outdoors.
Even 15 to 30 minutes per day of a stress reduction method can benefit someone’s blood pressure, heart rate and metabolism. Stress relief may help someone to think better, work more efficiently, sleep better and have more focus on improving health. All of these factors lead to better health outcomes for patients. Reducing stress activates chemicals in the brain that make people feel good, and that has the potential to create better decision-making in patients when it comes to diet and nutrition.
The dangers of smoking have been well documented since the 1960s. Smoking can put a lot of oxidative and toxic stress on the cardiovascular system. The increased risk of heart attack and stroke are significant.
Smoking is not just bad for the lungs. Smoking increases blood pressure, reduces the effectiveness of transferring oxygen to vital organs, puts more strain on the heart and affects several body processes. The chemicals in tobacco are addictive, and they make it very hard to quit smoking.
Patients who quit smoking immediately start the body’s natural healing. The immune system begins to repair the lungs, increase oxygen to organs and helps repair the damage caused by smoking’s various toxic chemicals. A doctor can determine what medications patients may take to help alleviate the effects of smoking and any medications that can help someone to stop smoking. Quitting this bad habit is a good start for cardiovascular problems as a lack of the dangerous chemicals that come from smoking make your body’s systems more efficient at processing nutrients.
In various studies, it was concluded that weight only played one part in the issue of heart disease and diabetes. It turns out that body shape is a significant factor. People who carry fat that is evenly distributed had better health outcomes than those whose fat collected around the midsection. In other words, accumulated fat along the waistline may be a risk factor for heart disease.
Although patients can’t do much about body shape, the amount of weight they carry in certain sections of their body change depending on diet and exercise. People who try to work off the pounds gradually do get in better shape and it helps someone’s overall body shape.
Exercise (or lack thereof) can be crucial to ensuring a healthy heart. Exercise can reduce heart attack and stroke risk even if the diet is not optimal. This is not a pass to not practice healthy eating habits, but it reinforces the importance of a daily exercise routine.
Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that make the body’s internal processes work more effectively. The nutrition patients get from healthy eating habits make the body work more efficiently during exercise. Even moderate workouts can lower blood pressure, increase the heart’s beating power, improve the heart muscles functioning and help blood flow better to internal organs.
Just like diet and relaxation, patients have several choices when it comes to exercise. Walking, swimming, bicycling, dance and even video games offer exercise choices.
Diet is just one part of the overall cardiovascular picture of health, but it is one of the most important factors. Patients have complete control over what they eat, which means they have a vested interest in the choices they make with regards to their heart health. Even if patients can’t change genetic predispositions towards heart disease or environmental factors that could create poor health, diet and nutrition are two areas where there are multitudes of options for people who want to improve their heart health immediately. Doctors can foster these changes by encouraging good eating habits and monitoring patients’ progress in the years ahead.