Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death globally and accounts for 1 in 4 of all total deaths in the United States. This statistic far exceeds the annual deaths caused by all types of cancers combined which highlights how grave the situation is.
Cardiovascular disease is steadily increasing due to several modern lifestyle factors such as physical inactivity, consumption of unhealthy diet, and smoking. Diet alone can significantly influence cardiovascular risk factors. Therefore, a heart-friendly, balanced diet is of utmost importance to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Before diving into the relationship between diet and heart disease, an understanding of the cardiovascular disease definition, risk factors, and signs and symptoms is important.
You might be thinking: Is cardiovascular disease the same as heart disease? In short, yes and no. Cardiovascular disease is a broad term that encompasses all the pathological conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. For instance, stroke is a cardiovascular condition but not a heart condition as it involves the blood vessel supplying the brain. Heart disease, on the other hand, is a term used for conditions that solely affect the heart.
The majority of heart conditions in adults are due to damage caused by "atherosclerosis". Atherosclerosis is the gradual build-up of cholesterol and fat in the blood vessel lining which makes them thick and less elastic. This stiffening and hardening of the blood vessels lead to a multitude of problems including narrowed blood vessels in the heart, high blood pressure, and a decreased work capacity. Over time, atherosclerosis can compromise blood flow to the heart itself which can lead to fatal consequences.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has revealed some shocking statistics related to cardiovascular disease. Every 36 seconds, a person dies from complications of cardiovascular disease. While cardiovascular disease disproportionately affects people from all walks of life, certain factors increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Some of these factors are “unmodifiable” which means that they’re determined by birth and cannot be changed. The majority however are “modifiable” which means adopting healthy lifestyle measures can help in cardiovascular disease prevention. Some of the factors which put people at a high risk of cardiovascular disease include:
Cardiovascular disease might as well be called the "culinary disease" because of the adverse effect that diet can play on cardiovascular health. Modern, hectic lifestyle has made the consumption of processed food much more convenient and cost-effective. Unfortunately, these foods contain a lot of added sugars, salt, and saturated fats which accelerate atherosclerosis.
While people generally tend to think of processed food as hamburgers, fries, and fast food, the reality is that most of the food we now consume is processed. Candy bars, chocolates, cheesecakes, soda drinks, all are equally bad for heart health as they contain a lot of sugar.
Recent studies document the role of added sugar in adversely affecting cardiovascular health. People who regularly consume soft drinks were found to have a 22% higher chance of developing high blood pressure. Another study that observed the dietary habits of 88,000 women over 24 years found a 35% greater risk of developing heart disease in women who drank more than 2 servings of sweetened beverages.
Processed foods are high in sodium content and easily exceed the recommended daily limit of 2300 mg/day. High salt intake is positively correlated with a higher blood pressure, which can later lead to complications like myocardial infarction or “heart attack”. Saturated fats are also another important contributor to atherosclerosis and adverse cardiovascular health. The consumption of saturated fats - especially from meat sources - increases the level of "bad cholesterol" or LDL in the body. This in turn leads to a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. Reducing intake of unhealthy, processed food can significantly reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Treatment of cardiovascular disease is expensive and might not always be life-saving. As the adage goes, prevention is better than cure. Fortunately, while diet is the main culprit, cardiovascular disease prevention is possible with a healthy, balanced diet. Food is medicine, it might be argued as consumption of a healthy, balanced nutritious diet can help reverse the effects of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. A diet plan for cardiovascular disease prevention should follow these basic principles:
A vegan and vegetarian diet is linked with lower mortality and risk of cardiovascular disease.Therefore, consumption of vegetables and fruits is recommended. Try consuming a variety and incorporate the color of the rainbows on your plate.
As previously explained, excessive salt intake can lead to hypertension and heart disease. Salt is also present in several processed foods so being mindful of the salt content in each food item is essential. Making your meals has the advantage that you can control the sodium content. Try consuming fresh meals instead of eating canned, processed foods.
Whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients. The nutrients in whole grains help reduce blood pressure and the incidence of cardiovascular disease.Avoid refined flour and choose whole-grain bread.
Avoid consumption of red meat that may be high in saturated fats. Instead, try to consume lean meat, poultry, fish, and egg whites which are rich sources of protein. Legumes are an excellent source of low-fat, plant protein which can be used as a heart-friendly meat substitute.
The latest dietary recommendations released by the American Heart Association focus on the balanced consumption of dietary elements. Instead of eating one particular food or avoiding it altogether, the overall pattern of food consumption might be more important in determining cardiovascular health. Therefore focus on a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and has minimum processed food. Also, limit alcohol intake as it negatively impacts cardiovascular health.