In the last 2 articles on this subject I discussed what heart disease is, who it affects, and what are its signs and symptoms. In this article I want to focus on how diet can have a major influence on our risk of developing atherosclerosis (heart disease) and what we can do to take ourselves out of the danger zone.
So we know that of all the risk factors (smoking, being sedentary, having high blood pressure etc.), having elevated Cholesterol blood levels is the causative one and this is the one factor we need focus on in order to reduce our risk.
What do we know about cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in relation to diet? As mentioned in the first article it was discovered in the 1950s that our risk for heart disease appeared to increase with increasing blood levels of cholesterol.
Cholesterol had been investigated long before this in experimental animal studies and it had been found that excess cholesterol in the blood of these animals was leading to build-up of atherosclerosis. The logic was if elevated cholesterol could cause atherosclerosis in animals then it was possible it was doing so in humans too.
So if elevated cholesterol was the cause of atherosclerosis (heart disease), what was causing the elevated cholesterol?
This was now a question to be answered later in the Seven Countries Study. This was a large scale epidemiology study (looking at people in large groups – observing their behaviours and outcomes and identifying what behaviours or factors were linked to these outcomes). In this study one of the conclusions reached was that people who had a high intake of dietary saturated fats (found mostly in foods like meats, cheese and butter) also had high levels of heart disease. In fact those who had the highest intake of saturated fat also had the highest level of heart disease. The same was true for the opposite – those with the lowest levels of saturated fat intake had the lowest heart disease.
Further studies confirmed that saturated fat intake was the cause of the elevated blood cholesterol levels. The more saturated fat a person consumed in their dietary intake, the higher their blood cholesterol levels would rise.
So the simple answer to reducing our risk of heart disease is to reduce our intake of saturated fat. So how do we do this? What is the best way to do it? Why does it feel so hard to achieve healthy cholesterol levels from diet?
Making our diets more heart healthy
If we are aiming to achieve what is outlined above (reduce saturated fat intake, increase fibre intake, reduce overall energy intake, increase intake of fruits and vegetables) – a good place to start is increasing plant based meals in our weekly menus. That doesn’t mean going cold turkey vegan – it means gradually increasing your intake of plant based meals or plant predominant meals, starting with one meal in a given week. Choose something that looks like you will enjoy it (there are plenty of plant only recipes in a lot of different cuisines – Italian, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Japanese etc.).
Slowly we can work on allowing space for more and more plant rich foods. This is a sure way to achieve the above goals and start to reduce your risk of heart disease. Our cholesterol and LDL levels will begin to come down, and gradually our risk of cardiovascular disease will come down (remember it can take decades for atherosclerosis to develop to the point that symptoms occur – so the sooner and the longer we get our blood cholesterol into the healthy range the better).
One of the reasons most of the recipes you will see on this website are plant based is because I believe consuming more plant foods and less animal foods is a proven way to reduce our risk of many of today’s chronic diseases and ensure a healthier future for ourselves and our families.
Is this hard to do? – Below I want to briefly go over some of the reasons making these dietary changes can be challenging and how you can overcome these challenges
The challenges with changing our diets (or any habit for that matter) are familiar to all of us. We are so used to operating in ways that are so familiar to us that we hardly have to think to do them. Added to this is the environment we find ourselves in.
The culture we find ourselves in, as well as the economy and food supply that surrounds us is enormously influential on our thoughts, actions and habits. Even our inherent beliefs play a major role.
So when we start to entertain lifestyle or dietary changes we often come up against resistance – people around us may be uncomfortable or skeptical with what we are planning (as maybe we are too), our choices may be in conflict with our culture, or we may just find the cost or availability of certain foods is making it more difficult than we anticipated to make changes.
But as the saying goes – forewarned is forearmed – When we know what we are up against we can start off on the right foot.
Some of the things worth keeping in mind when you begin to make dietary and lifestyle changes in order to improve your health:
- The need for adequate protein and fibre
- The need for enough energy – being full
- The need to avoid overly processed foods – added sugar, excess salt, refined carbs / bread
- The need to keep saturated fat intake low
I know there is a lot of info in these articles to take in. I wanted to give an overview of what is the cause of the leading killer of modern people, and hopefully allow you to appreciate what it is, what are some of the bigger things in our diets that influence our health and what we can do to stay healthy for all our lives.
In future articles I will discuss in more detail what specifically we can do to maintain a) our long term health, b) our immediate health and well-being and c) our energy levels. I believe there are many ways to start to really get a handle of our health and well-being and it does not have to be a huge undertaking, regardless of our current health. Each day we influence our health by the foods we eat, our activity levels and the quality of our mind-set and our sleep. Each day and each meal is an opportunity to learn more, apply healthier eating principles and take more charge of our health so we can live a better life.