Today, 29 September, is World Heart Day. It’s a good day to remind ourselves to take good care of our the organ that works round the clock to keep us ticking – our heart. A hundred years ago, we were more likely to die from an infectious disease than heart problems. Today however, the reverse is true, and heart disease, a mostly preventable condition, is the now the number one killer in the US.
In order to answer this question, we need to look at what has changed in this time. Medical knowledge to combat infection has improved, yes; but more significantly, the American diet and lifestyle habits have taken a turn for the worse.
We move less and eat more refined food and animal products that we did at any time in our evolution as a species. But why does this matter? Risk factors that contribute to heart disease include obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, oxidative stress and systemic inflammation – all of which are heavily influenced by diet and lifestyle factors.
Diets high in sugar, processed grains and animal products and low in plant foods promote inflammation in our body, which in turn leads to damaged tissues and blood vessels. In response to this damage, plaques form over the damaged areas of arteries eventually leading to blockages and threatening the viability of the heart.
Several large studies, including Dr. Campbell’s 2006 China Study, have asked this question and research results have indicated positively, that a plant-based diet, which restricts or ideally eliminates all animal-based foods, is protective against heart disease.
The studies suggest that a plant-based diet helps clean out blockages in the arteries, helps with repair to the artery wall, raises HDL (or good) cholesterol, and reduces blood pressure oxidation and inflammation – all of which are beneficial in preventing heart disease.
Dr. Campbell questions whether animal-based foods are a common cause of heart disease and other ailments. While he and other studies have found a positive correlation between a vegetarian/vegan diet and reduced incidence of heart disease, we also have to be mindful to look at other factors that might influence this change; namely that a properly planned vegetarian or vegan diet is also a “whole-foods” diet that eliminates all harmful processed foods and is high in beneficial nutrients and fibre, plus lifestyle factors such as exercise.
So, is it the lack of animal protein, other factors, or both, that proposes a vegetarian/vegan diet is protective against heart disease?
When analyzing a vegetarian or vegan diet in regard to heart health it is important to decide whether it is the avoidance of animal-based foods or the avoidance of processed foods that provide the greater (or combined) positive effect.
There is no doubt, that a “well-planned” plant based (zero processed food) diet is anti-inflammatory, alkalizing, high in fibre and nutrients and because of this, beneficial to our heart, blood vessels and circulation.
However, a diet low in protein is not beneficial to heart health. If you cannot manage to include enough good-quality plant protein in your diet then a small amount from a free-range or wild caught animal source is actually beneficial.
If you choose your protein source carefully, such as small amounts of free-range eggs and poultry, wild-caught fish and other organic sources of animal protein this can be beneficial in promoting overall health.
Remember, to counter the acidifying and inflammatory nature of animal-based proteins, ensure you consume a high level of plant-based foods and healthy fats (and again – zero processed foods).
These heavily processed components of packaged foods lead to inflammation and toxic build up in the arteries, insulin resistance, and fatty liver and are strongly linked to diabetes, atherosclerosis, obesity and heart disease.
Eliminate ALL Refined Grains (especially wheat)
Refined grains, have most of their nutrients stripped away and break down quickly into sugar, leading to spikes in blood sugar,
Note this group encompasses foods such as white bread, pasta and white rice too.
Trans Fats and Processed Vegetable Oils found in processed and fast foods – these chemically altered processed fats increase inflammation and oxidative stress which can promote atherosclerotic plaques in arteries
Healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocado, fish, olives etc. – these fats promote cellular health, healthy blood, blood vessels and circulation and reduce inflammation.
Plant-based foods including vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds deliver healthy nutrients and fibre and contribute little in the way of calories. This means they are alkalizing, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and help promote detoxification, healthy circulation and weight loss.
Proteins are to our body as bricks are to a house, providing a great deal of the building blocks for muscles, organs and other tissues, including the heart muscle and blood vessels.
It is completely possible to eat an adequate amount of protein from plant-based sources including beans, lentils, whole grains, tofu, nuts, seeds etc. These are wonderfully anti-inflammatory and alkalizing protein sources, however, bear in mind that these sources provide lower amounts than animal foods so you will need to consume larger quantities and some at every meal. It is also important to remember that you will need to properly combine protein sources (such as legumes and whole grains) to get the full compliment of amino acids.
While a healthy diet is crucial for cardiovascular health, other factors play an equally important role:
Every cell in the body contains powerhouses called mitochondria and due to its ceaseless movement, heart cells have more than most. Coenzyme Q 10 is an important factor in energy production for the heart, it is also antioxidant and helps reduce hypertension. Supplementation of 100-150mg per day has been shown to be protective to the heart and increases overall energy levels. It is especially important to take this supplement if you are on statin (anti-cholesterol) medication as statins significantly impair the body’s ability to make this nutrient naturally.
The heart muscle requires magnesium to enable it to relax after each contraction and low magnesium levels can be associated with an irregular heart beat, hypertension and heart attack. 300-600mg per day is cardio-protective.
Evidence supporting the cardio-protective nature of fish-oil is so strong that the American Heart Association guidelines recommend all Americans to consume omega-3 rich fish or fish oil every week at a dosage of 1-4 grams per day. Fish oil reduces heart rate and balances heart rhythm, increases HDL and reduces inflammation, triglycerides, LDL, blood pressure and overall risk of cardiovascular disease.
Glutathione is a key detoxifier and antioxidant and, at a dosage of 500-1000mg per day, evidence supports it’s role in reducing both inflammation and the oxidation of LDL cholesterol which can lead to the build up of dangerous plaques in your arteries.
Inflammation plays a significant role in the development of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, helps lower total cholesterol, inhibits platelet aggregation and prevents the oxidation of dangerous LDL cholesterol, which is the main component of atherosclerotic plaques. A dose of 100-300mg per day is beneficial.
Heart health can be better guaranteed by the promotion of a whole-food diet and the elimination of vegetable oils, sugars, refined grains, and other industrial food products that tend to displace real food on our modern menus. The health benefits of vegan/vegetarian diets are likely caused by the elimination of harmful ingredients and processed foods and a healthier lifestyle, as much as by avoiding a moderate amount of animal foods. Either way, a healthier diet and lifestyle means a healthier heart and a healthier you.