Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. It is responsible for every 1 in 4 deaths and costs us $200 billion in healthcare costs each year. The biggest risk factors for heart disease include hypertension (high blood pressure), high LDL cholesterol, and smoking. 49% of Americans have at least one of these risk factors. Other risk factors include being overweight, lack of physical activity, and consuming a poor diet.
The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is caused by atherosclerosis of the arteries that supply the heart. Cholesterol and other substances build up in the arteries causing plaques that harden and narrow the vessels. Blood struggles to travel through these narrowed arteries which in turn causes the heart to work harder to pump more blood throughout the body. This inevitably results in high blood pressure, explaining why most individuals with hypertension also have high cholesterol. The heart is not designed to sustain the extra workload and will eventually exhaust itself. According to the CDC, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack every 40 seconds.2
Let’s talk more about cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy fat-like substance found in cell membranes. It’s also used to make many essential hormones in the body. The body makes most of its own cholesterol. There are two major types: HDL and LDL. HDL is considered to be “good” cholesterol, while LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol. LDL tends to circulate in the blood stream and form plaques in the arteries when levels become too high. HDL actually absorbs and carries LDL to the liver, where it will eventually be excreted from the body.
Because most of our dietary cholesterol comes from fatty foods, authorities have long held that consuming a low-fat diet is the solution. The problem with this thinking is that all fats are not created equal. Fats are an important part of the diet helping us stay full longer, providing energy, and actually helping in weight management. Not to mention that most foods labeled “low-fat” usually contain extra sugars and refined carbohydrates to make up for it.
The American Heart Association has known the importance of fats since 2002 when they first released a statement acknowledging several studies that found omega-3 fatty acids to be beneficial in treating cardiovascular disease. This statement was solidified in 2017 after further testing confirmed this. Omega-3 fatty acids are widely acknowledged to be heart healthy and anti-inflammatory. The body makes its own essential fatty acids needed for various biological processes. It makes all it needs, with the exception of 3 and 6 which must come from the diet.
In general, humans should consume more omega-3’s than omega-6’s. Due to the highly processed nature of the typical American diet, most Americans have a disproportionate ratio with omega-6’s being much more abundant. A diet high in omega-6’s has been shown increase levels of LDL and promote inflammation in the body. We will discuss more about inflammation and its impact on health in another post.
The problem is not fat itself. The problem is in consuming highly processed foods containing large amounts of trans fats (to be avoided at all costs) and refined oils. These types of fats increase levels of LDL and wreak havoc on the body as a whole. Trans fats, often shown on labels as “partially hydrogenated oils”, are popular in processed foods due to being inexpensive, improving taste and texture, and extending the shelf life of foods.
Instead of reaching for any label claiming “fat-free,” opt for items like full fat yogurt, avocados, olive and coconut oil, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, pasture raised eggs, and grass-fed butter. Yes, that is correct, butter. Authorities have long recommended margarine over real butter. The problem with margarine is that it’s made from vegetable oils. Although the name suggests the oil is made from vegetables, these oils have nothing to do with real vegetables and have been shown to be inflammatory as they are high in omega-6 fatty acids.
"Instead of reaching for any label claiming “fat-free,” opt for items like full fat yogurt, avocados, olive and coconut oil, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, pasture raised eggs, and grass-fed butter."
The take away here is that when paired with a low-carb diet sufficient in protein and fresh vegetables, consuming the right fats help protect the heart. It’s time to ditch the processed, packaged, fast, and frozen foods that elevate LDL, promote inflammation, and lead to heart disease. Focus instead on consuming whole food sources of fats that raise HDL levels.
There are many conditions involved in heart disease. We only covered the most prevalent, CAD. If there is anything to learn from this article it’s that CAD is purely a lifestyle choice. Poor dietary habits, lack of exercise, and mental stress all contribute to disease. Eating right, exercising daily, and managing stress is the cure.