Diet and cardiovascular disease
The role of diet is crucial in the development and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Diet is one of the key things you can change that will impact all other cardiovascular risk factors.
Comparisons between a diet low in saturated fats, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the typical diet of someone living in the developed world show that in the former there is a 73% reduction in the risk of new major cardiac events.
Research makes it clear that abnormal blood lipid (fat) levels have a strong correlation with the risk of coronary artery disease, heart attack and coronary death. In turn, abnormal blood lipids are related to what you eat. A diet high in saturated fats (e.g. cheese) and trans fats (often used in cakes, cookies and fast food) leads to high levels of cholesterol.
Saturated fats are found in animal products. Trans fats are oils that have been hydrogenated to turn them into semi-hard fats. Hydrogenated fat is found in processed food like shop-bought cakes, biscuits, stock cubes and a range of other products you buy every day. Saturated and trans fats raise cholesterol levels in the blood, which in turn can lead to atherosclerosis.
Unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated are beneficial for heart health. They are present in fish, nuts, seeds and vegetables.
The essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 are found in oily fish and in nuts and seeds. Our bodies cannot make these acids so we have to eat them to gain their benefits, which include improving cholesterol levels in the body.
But it is important to note that if your total fat intake is greater than 37% of your total calories, then even if that fat is unsaturated you increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat intake should not exceed 10% of total energy and for high-risk groups, like people with diabetes, total fat intake should be 7% or less of total energy.
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. If you have a diet high in sodium you risk hypertension.
It has been estimated that a universal reduction in dietary intake of sodium by about 1g of sodium a day, about 3g of salt, would lead to a 50% reduction in the number of people needing treatment for hypertension. The same decrease would lead to a 22% drop in the number of deaths resulting from strokes and a 16% fall in the number of deaths from coronary heart disease.
Fruits and vegetables
Eating a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables protects your heart. Low fruit and vegetable intake accounts for about 20% of cardiovascular disease worldwide. Fruit and vegetables contain components that protect against heart disease and stroke.
Whole grains are unrefined and do not have the bran or germ removed. They contain folic acid, B vitamins and fiber, all of which are important protectors against heart disease. Processed grains like that used to make white bread and pasta do not have the same benefits as wholegrain cereals.
In countries where fish consumption is high there is a reduced risk of death from all causes as well as cardiovascular mortality.
Eating nuts regularly is associated with decreased risk of coronary heart disease.
There is evidence that soy has a beneficial effect on blood lipid levels. Eating 47g of soy protein a day led to a 9% drop in total cholesterol and a 13% reduction in LDL cholesterol in one study of people without any heart disease.
If you have the occasional drink you may protect your heart, but only if you drink in moderation.