In an age where we are now 40-50 years into a series of public health campaigns designed to teach us how to eat for better heart health, you would expect cardiovascular disease to be decreasing. However, the opposite is true – when you look at the numbers in just the UK alone, you start to see a very scary picture forming.
According to The British Heart Foundation’s latest set of figures, this is the scale of the problem we are looking at:
- Coronary artery disease will kill 1 in 6 men, 1 in 10 women, and there are over 2.3 million people living with the condition in the UK
- There are around 103,000 heart attacks in the UK every year
- 750,000 people are living with heart failure, and there are around 152,000 strokes each year.
Whilst there are many contributing factors - smoking, booze, stress, etc. – there are also a few key areas of our diet playing a huge part in this picture. These dietary changes, discussed below, have partially arisen from well-meaning public health campaigns.
Omega 6 fatty acids
As I have written about in my earlier article ‘Fatty Acid Balance’, we need to address the types of fats that we are consuming. In these modern times, far too many of us are consuming high amounts of processed, plant derived oils, like sunflower oil, soy oil and regular vegetable oils. The movement away from oils like butter and lard in favour of margarine, and the consumption of more processed foods and ready meals, has meant that our intake of these oils has become rather high.
Why is this a problem? Well, these oils are very rich in omega 6 – a fatty acid that we only need in very small amounts. When we exceed that amount, omega 6 is converted into compounds that activate and exacerbate inflammation, and heart disease is essentially an inflammatory condition.
Minute inflammatory events can damage the ‘endothelium’ - the skin that lines the inside of our blood vessels. It is this initial inflammatory injury that then sets in motion a series of events that eventually leads to plaque formation in the arteries. By reducing these oils and increasing our intake of omega 3 fatty acids, we can drastically reduce the inflammatory load.
High glycaemic carbohydrates
I’m sure dietary fats being linked with heart disease is nothing new to you. But, something which is seldom discussed is the impact that the glycaemic value of our food can have on our health. If you read my piece on blood sugar balance you will see that this issue is a significant one.
In the context of heart disease, a diet built around high glycaemic carbohydrates and processed starches, such as white bread, white pasta and sugary drinks, etc., can have a very negative effect indeed. One thing that happens when we consume a diet that constantly pushes our blood sugar levels up is that our cells soon ‘get full’, causing the body to find other ways to reduce it’s blood sugar. It does this by sending excess sugar to the liver where it is turned into a kind of fat called Tri Acyl Glycerol, which will be stored in fat tissue for a rainy day.
This fat has to be transported to fat tissue via the bloodstream, and when it does, it is very susceptible to oxidation. If it oxidises, then it can trigger inflammatory damage to the endothelium, which as we know sets of a cascade of responses that will attempt to repair the damage. It is in this repair response that we develop the sorts of plaques characteristic of heart disease.
What should we add more of?
Oily fish or EPA supplements
These supply the omega 3 fatty acid, EPA. This is metabolised to form a very potent anti-inflammatory compound called a ‘series 3 prostaglandin’. Reducing omega 6 intake and upping EPA can significantly reduce inflammation, and in turn, the risk of heart disease.
Flavonoid rich foods
Foods such as onions, red peppers, berries, and even red wine and chocolate all contain a group of compounds called flavonoids. These help to protect the endothelium (the inner skin of the blood vessels) from damage. They also help to lower blood pressure by causing dilation of the blood vessels.
Whole grains & Complex carbohydrates
Simply swapping processed carbohydrate staples, like white rice and breads, for wholegrain versions, and reducing portion sizes of these, can deliver some key benefits. The first is that these foods do not cause huge spikes in blood sugar, which can over time cause serious damage. Secondly many of them contain types of fibre that can bind to cholesterol in the digestive tract and prevent it from being absorbed. Whilst there is a lot of controversy around cholesterol at the moment, the outcome is unclear – so for many, lowering cholesterol remains a focus in keeping a healthy heart.