Using Food-as-Medicine for Heart Health

How Current Evidence Guides Food-based Approaches to Heart Health

Heart health has been a hot topic for years, mostly due to some past conflicting evidence and unfortunate dietary guidelines that we now know likely caused more harm than good. Current evidence reveals the physiology of plaque formation in arteries and how our lifestyle prevents or contributes to heart disease. With this, it is important to note the following essential food-based approaches to caring for and healing our hearts.

What the current evidence shows is that a diet high in fat (specifically monounsaturated, saturated, and omega-3), fibrous foods, and antioxidants, along with regular physical activity and limited use or complete avoidance of substances like alcohol and tobacco leads to the best outcomes for heart and whole-body health.

The common theme among these lifestyle factors is their role in preventing and reducing inflammation and oxidation in the body. There are two types of inflammation, acute and chronic.

Acute inflammation occurs during a state of injury in which the body requires white blood cells, hormones, and extra nutrients to heal itself. These types of injuries include cuts, bone and muscle injuries, appendicitis, acute kidney injuries, respiratory infections, and other conditions that tend to fully resolve in a relatively short amount of time.

In contrast, chronic inflammation occurs when our lifestyle is out of balance and our immune system is constantly in repair mode. When the body is in a state of chronic inflammation, an inflammatory signal is sent when there is no actual threat. White blood cells flow through the blood without direction and can damage organs and other cells over time. This systemic inflammation can lead to heart disease, diabetes, depression, compromised bone health, autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma, and more through various pathways involving cytokines and other immune cells.

Oxidative stress is highly correlated with increased inflammation in the body. With relation to heart disease, a main contributor to plaque buildup in arteries, or atherosclerosis, is the oxidation of LDL (low-density lipoprotein, often referred to as “bad” cholesterol) particles.

You may have been told that saturated fats increase LDL in the body, and it can for some people; however, the size of the LDL particles is what really determines if they will be harmful or not.

Small, dense LDL particles are easiest to oxidize and form plaque in the arteries, while large, buoyant particles tend to float through the arteries without causing any damage. Saturated fats from whole foods, like grass-fed and pasture-raised meats, full-fat dairy, and coconut, olive, and avocado oils increase the large, buoyant particles which are not harmful, whereas saturated fats from highly processed fats like margarine, corn oil, canola oil, and soybean oil can increase the small, dense particles which damage blood vessels.

Additionally, saturated fats are the LEAST likely fat to oxidize during cooking, so they can actually be safer to eat than other fats, like polyunsaturated. In fact, the most current research and review of past research shows that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol do NOT directly cause heart disease (though you can still find headlines that incorrectly say otherwise). As well, the research shows that the more you lower your cholesterol, with diet, statins, or both, the more your mortality increases - that's something you'll never hear the American Heart Association admit.

 

Using Food-as-Medicine for Heart Health

Antioxidants and Phytonutrients

  • Vitamin A – full-fat dairy, meat, eggs, liver, carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, berries, squash, spinach, apricots
  • Vitamin C – citrus, pineapple, mangoes, kiwi, strawberries, papaya, grapefruit, bell peppers, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, cauliflower
  • Vitamin E – nuts and seeds, oils, avocados, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, butternut squash
  • Lycopene – tomatoes, papaya, mangoes, grapefruit, watermelon, guava, asparagus, red cabbage, carrots
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin – kale, spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, collard greens, brussels sprouts, green beans, oranges, papayas, eggs
  • Resveratrol – grapes, red wine, raw cocoa and dark chocolate, berries, pistachios
  • Selenium – Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, mushrooms, eggs, poultry, liver, tuna, herring, salmon

Omega-3 Fats

  • Fatty fish, like wild salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, and tuna
  • Grass-fed beef and dairy
  • Pasture-raised poultry and eggs
  • Chia, flax, and hemp seeds
  • Walnuts

Other Fats

  • Olive, avocado oil, and coconut oil
  • Grass-fed butter and ghee
  • Olives
  • Avocado
  • Coconut

Soluble Fiber

  • Vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes, like beans and lentils
  • Whole grains, like oats, brown rice, and wild rice

Plant Sterols & Stanols

  • Vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes, like beans and lentils

Methionine

  • Brazil nuts
  • Grass-fed beef and dairy
  • Pasture-raised poultry, lamb, pork, and eggs
  • Wild fish and shellfish
  • Beans

Anti-inflammatory Spices

  • Turmeric + black pepper
  • Ginger
 
 

TIP 1: Choosing wild fish and grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and dairy products in full-fat versions as often as possible will ensure that you’re getting the heart-healthy benefits.

TIP 2: When choosing more processed meats, like bacon, hot dogs, or deli meats, look for "uncured" products with no added nitrates or nitrites which are known carcinogens. Applegate Farms has a good selection.

TIP 3: Choosing local, organic produce when possible will ensure you’re getting the most nutrition from these foods. You can use the “Clean 15” and “Dirty Dozen” lists to help guide your choices.

TIP 4: The nutrients in nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes are better absorbed and create less intestinal distress (in sensitive individuals) when they are soaked or sprouted. Follow this guide from Nutrition Stripped for a complete explanation and directions.

Other Lifestyle Factors for Heart Health

Avoid Synthetic Trans Fats

  • These can be found as partially hydrogenated oil in ingredients lists and undisputedly increase risk of heart disease

Limit Added Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates

  • Added sugar and refined carbohydrates increase inflammation and negatively affect blood sugar control

Manage Blood Sugar

  • High blood sugar and diabetes are directly correlated with stroke and heart attack because elevated glucose in the vessels causes damage, leading to inflammation, oxidation, and plaque buildup

Cardiovascular Activity

  • Working toward 30 minutes of walking, running, biking, hiking, rowing, etc. on most days of the week will help increase your HDL particles which act as a broom in your vessels, removing damaging LDL particles

Avoid or Quit Using Tobacco

  • Tobacco use greatly increases the risk for heart disease and should be avoided

Limit or Avoid Alcohol Consumption

  • Heart health benefits are seen with a small amount of alcohol consumption, which is a maximum of 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women; red wine is a particularly good choice for its resveratrol content; if you don’t currently consume alcohol, it may not necessarily be beneficial to begin