Heart disease is a complex disease that can be caused by many different factors including genetics, environment, and lifestyle. While genetics and environment may not be in our immediate control, lifestyle definitely is.
Diet is one of the most effective lifestyle changes you can make to help lower your risk of heart disease. While you cannot guarantee that the right diet will prevent you from ever getting heart disease, it can help lower your risk. In this article we are going to cover the most effective dietary habits you can adopt to help you minimize your risk of heart disease.
Maintain a “normal” BMI
The single greatest way you can reduce your risk of heart disease is by staying in calorie balance and maintaining a normal BMI. Regardless of how accurate BMI may be a reflection of your personal body composition, the evidence is crystal clear that carrying a BMI above “normal” and carrying excess body weight and body fat increases your risk of heart disease.
One of the most effective ways to manage your body weight and achieve and sustain a healthy BMI is by understanding your body’s energy needs and then adopting habits that match your overall energy needs. You can get a very good estimate of your body’s calorie needs using our calorie and macro calculator that has been used by over 2 million people to do.
Get Your Fruits and Veggies In
In a field of study that often has conflicting evidence, one of the most agreed upon findings in nutrition research is that the more fruits and vegetables you consume, the lower your risk of heart disease is. In fact, this is one of the most consistent findings in all of nutrition research. Ideally, you should consume roughly 500-800 grams of fruits and vegetables per day, which is about 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day.
It doesn’t necessarily matter which exact fruits or vegetables you consume, but a good rule of thumb is to “eat the rainbow” and eat fruits and vegetables of all different colors as each color provides slightly different micronutrients.
In addition to fruit and vegetable consumption being associated with lower risks of heart disease, it appears that consuming fish is almost almost universally accepted as a nutritional strategy to help improve heart health and lower the risk of developing heart disease.
There are likely two main reasons for this. The first is directly related to the fact that fish are rich in a specific type of fatty acid, specifically omega-3 fatty acids. These fats can help lower inflammation, reduce triglycerides, and may slightly lower blood pressure. The second is that oftentimes when individuals consume fish they are using that to replace other sources of protein which are higher in saturated fats. Research has shown that replacing a small portion of your dietary intake of saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats (which fish is a rich source of) also lowers your risk of heart disease.
Don’t be so Salty
The link between salt and heart disease has been discussed for several decades and its origins trace back to the 1990s and the DASH studies. It stemmed from the idea that high blood pressure is one of the contributing factors to heart disease and since sodium helps control blood pressure, lowering sodium intake by lowering salt (sodium chloride) should help reduce the risk of heart disease. And indeed, this is what the randomized trials of lowering salt intake in the diet showed; among people with hypertension and/or established heart disease, lowering dietary sodium intake reduced the risk of heart disease.
This brings us to an important caveat… for people who are otherwise healthy and are considered normotensive (having normal blood pressure), focusing on salt restriction may not provide very much “bang for your buck” and the only real focus here should be avoiding excessive salt intake.
Eliminate Trans Fats
Trans fats rose to popularity in the 1980s and 1990s after saturated fat was initially linked to heart disease. People needed a different source of solid at room temperature fat, which led to the creation and popularization of trans-fats. While this was initially believed to be a move in the right direction for people’s health, it turned out that trans-fats were actually worse for heart disease than the fats it was meant to replace.
Trans fats have been shown to alter your lipid profile quite substantially by increasing LDL and lowering HDL. It is also a fairly inflammatory fatty acid. Both of these likely contribute to its measurable effect on cardiovascular disease risk. In fact, a study from the early 2000s found that a 2% increase in trans fat intake increased the risk of heart disease by almost 30%.
The effect of trans fats on heart disease was so profound and so clear that the FDA made an official ruling in 2015 and declared them as no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).
Don’t Sweat Eggs
Eggs have been a topic of debate for years about their role in heart disease. For years they were bad for your heart… then they were good for your heart… then they were bad again… so what is the real story here?
The core idea around eggs and heart disease is actually a broader discussion which is centered on the role that dietary cholesterol plays in heart disease. It turns out that dietary cholesterol in the quantities most people consume <1000 mg per day, have almost no real effect on our circulating levels of cholesterol and have very little impact on heart disease risk. In fact, the American Heart Association has recently changed its own dietary guidelines and have determined that “cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption”.
This means that you can consume foods that contain cholesterol as part of your healthy dietary pattern.
Navigating the journey toward a heart-healthy lifestyle is both simple and complex. By focusing on maintaining a healthy BMI, incorporating a diverse array of fruits and vegetables, choosing fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, moderating sodium intake, avoiding trans fats, and not worrying excessively about egg consumption, you can significantly lower your risk of heart disease.
Remember, while diet is a powerful tool in the fight against heart disease, it’s one part of a holistic approach that includes regular exercise, managing stress, and avoiding smoking. Adopting these dietary strategies is not a guarantee against heart disease, but it’s a step in the right direction toward a healthier heart and a healthier life.
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