Heart disease is among the top killers of our time so what can you do to prevent it?
What is heart disease?
The term heart disease is often used instead of the more accurate cardiovascular disease (CVD) and describes a chronic disease of the heart and blood vessels. It is closely related to cerebrovascular disease, which describes problem in the brain’s blood vessels and greatly increases the risk of stroke.
All forms of the disease usually start as atherosclerosis – a thickening and hardening of artery walls. Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the body and atherosclerosis is characterised by the build-up of cholesterol, fats and white blood cells on the inner wall surfaces of arteries. These build-ups are called plaques and can cause arteries to narrow, reducing blood flow and, in some cases, may even block them entirely. A plaque can also burst, leading to a blood clot forming around the rupture and that, too, can block blood supply to a body part or organ. If this happens around the heart, it can cause a heart attack.
The first sign that you might be at risk of heart disease is usually high blood pressure. The heart has to pump the same volume of blood to keep the body working but now it has to go through narrower arteries and that increases pressure on the artery walls.
It is estimated that more than a half of the UK population will develop a heart or circulatory condition in their lifetime.
Heart disease and diet
Some people are genetically more susceptible to heart disease but lifestyle is what matters most. Usually, it isn’t genetics that cause the problems but diet and lifestyle – and children inherit that from their parents.
Foods rich in saturated fats increase our cholesterol levels, which, in turn, increase the risk of atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. If you supply generous amounts of saturated fats to your body on a regular basis, it will likely result in heart disease sooner or later. Although it’s mostly animal foods such as meat, high-fat dairy, eggs and fish that contain these fats, some plant products are also rich sources – palm oil, for example, coconut oil and many processed foods and snacks. These latter foods can also contain hydrogenated fats, another group of heart health enemies. Hydrogenated fats are man-made and raise your cholesterol levels even more than saturated fats so avoid them at all costs!
According to the American Heart Association, replacing saturated fats in the diet with polyunsaturated (mostly from plant-based foods and oils) can reduce the risk of heart disease by about 30 per cent, a reduction similar to that achieved by the cholesterol-lowering drugs, statins. But that’s not all – other dietary changes are also important. By cutting out animal products, choosing wholefoods over junk foods and reducing the amount of sweets you eat, you’ll start to see a big reduction in your risk of heart disease.
Animal-based and processed foods are not just sources of ‘bad’ fats, they also contain a number of compounds that contribute to inflammation in your blood vessels. And just as bad, they trigger the formation of free radicals in your body – molecules that can damage the blood vessel lining.
Vegan diet for a healthy heart
Scientists believe that a healthy vegan diet is so good for the heart because it’s high in fibre, complex carbohydrates, plant protein, unsaturated fats, antioxidants and plant sterols. At the same time, it is low in saturated fats, sugar and cholesterol. Plant sterols are natural substances that compete with cholesterol for absorption in the gut – so the more plant sterols, the less cholesterol is absorbed. A vegan diet is cholesterol-free but we do make our own cholesterol in the liver which is secreted into the gut as a part of bile and plant sterols can reduce its absorbance.
And there’s a lot more that’s happening in the gut – bacteria that live there can have a wide range of effects on our health, including influencing heart disease. Vegans tend to have more beneficial gut bacteria that thrive on plant wholefoods rich in fibre and these bacteria produce substances that help to nourish and maintain the gut wall. They are also anti-inflammatory and have a blood pressure lowering effect. Other beneficial bacteria convert cholesterol into a substance called coprostanol, which is excreted with faeces – another reason why a vegan diet lowers cholesterol levels.
There are also harmful gut bacteria and these thrive on meat, eggs, high-fat and fried foods, processed foods, sugar and alcohol and produce toxins that can damage the gut wall. As well as causing local inflammation, they can and get into the bloodstream and cause inflammation in the blood vessels, contributing to atherosclerosis.
Omega-3s and heart disease
To be healthy, we need omega-3 fats but that doesn’t mean we need fish or fish oils. Far from it! Scientists have found that fish oils do not prevent heart disease but plant-based omega-3 may be beneficial and help to prevent major events, such as heart attack or stroke. Your daily dose of omega-3 fats can come from a tablespoon of ground flaxseed or chia seeds or a handful of walnuts. If you prefer taking oils in capsules, you can choose an omega-3 supplement made from microalgae but you should still make healthy eating a priority.
Protect your heart
So what is a heart healthy diet? It’s a vegan one based on wholefoods, such as wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds, and lots of fruit and vegetables. It includes healthy vegetable oils, such as rapeseed or virgin olive oil, in moderate amounts and omega-3 fats. To protect your heart, you should limit the amount of processed foods, sweets, ready-meals and vegan junk foods. And always use salt sparingly – too much and it can raise your blood pressure all on its own.
A large Harvard University study of almost 200,000 people showed that a healthy plant-based diet can reduce the risk of heart disease by 25 per cent, while an unhealthy one can even increase the risk!
Heart disease is a scary diagnosis but just as it can be prevented, so it can be reversed in many cases with these lifestyle changes. It’s never too late to change your diet and reap the benefits!