Coronary heart disease (also known as heart disease or cardiovascular disease) is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States: every 1 in 4 deaths is attributed to heart disease.
Heart disease is particularly deadly because it may not present with signs or symptoms prior to a life-threatening event, such as heart attack or stroke.
While symptoms and indicators like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes are easily diagnosed with routine physicians’ visits and bloodwork, many of us fail to visit our physicians as regularly as we should.
Cardiovascular disease is caused by the buildup of plaque inside the arterial wall. Plaque accumulates as a result of poor diet and exercise habits, excess body weight, and other lifestyle factors, such as smoking.
The strongest risk factors for heart disease include being overweight or obese, eating a diet high in sodium, sugar, and/or saturated fat, being physically inactive, having a family history of heart disease, and having diabetes or prediabetes.
Nutrition plays a potent role in heart disease prevention: nutrition has the capacity to reduce excess body weight and inflammation or do the exact opposite.
Regardless of your degree of heart disease risk, focusing on the following four dietary goals can help reduce your risk for heart disease, or reverse risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or prediabetes.
Maintain A Healthy Weight
Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial in preventing or reversing heart disease. Being overweight or obese increases blood pressure, which over time can lead to thickening and narrowing of the arteries. Coupled with plaque formation, this sets the stage for a heart attack or stroke. Losing even a small amount of weight can reduce your heart disease risk.
Avoid Caloric Beverages
Caloric beverages are the #1 source of added and refined sugar in the American diet. Added and refined sugars (such as those in soda or juice, respectively) directly increase heart disease risk through increased inflammation, which damages the arterial wall and sets the stage for narrowing and atherosclerosis.
While wine and other alcoholic beverages have long been associated with a reduced risk for heart disease, the link between the two is speculative rather than direct. Alcohol of all types are Group 1 Carcinogens, and the caloric density of any beverage product (alcohol or otherwise) will likely outweigh any benefits of consumption.
Skip the Sweet Stuff
The maximum recommended intake for added or refined sugar is 25 g/day. The average American consumes a whopping 88g, largely thanks to sugars “hidden” in processed foods.
Eating too much sugar increases risk for heart disease by creating large fluctuations in blood sugar that create cellular inflammation in cardiovascular tissues. Make a habit of checking labels for sugar content: any reduction is helpful.
Go with The Flow
In choosing cooking fats, always “go with the flow”. Seek out fats that are liquid at room temperature, including olive and canola oil. Fats that are solid at room temperature (like butter and coconut oil) are saturated, increasing risk for high cholesterol and plaque buildup.
Cooking oils aside, nuts, olives, avocado, natural nut butters, and fatty fish are all heart healthy alternatives that reduce inflammation and heart disease risk. Just remember to eat sparingly, as fat (regardless of health) is calorie dense.