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  • Denise Scott

Protecting your Heart with Nutrition

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Heart-healthy Foods

Since February is both National Heart Disease Month and National Children's Dental Health Month, I am splitting the month to give attention to both of these important topics.

Did you know that heart disease begins during childhood? Dietary factors pave the way toward one developing heart disease or not. Genetic factors also play a role, but even these can sometimes be influenced by diet.

Much is known regarding heart disease prevention through nutrition. Scientific evidence shows that a healthy diet is the most preventive factor for cardiovascular disease. I will outline the research in this first article, then review the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association recommendations in next week’s blog. Dietary measures to prevent this worldwide leading cause of death are included.

Let’s start with what we know based on the research.

  1. We know that atherosclerosis begins in childhood. Plaque formation in the blood vessels can develop as young as age ten to early teens. Plaque formation is the first step in atherosclerosis development. This ultimately leads to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and peripheral artery disease.

  2. Unhealthy diets, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are the top three contributors to the development of heart disease.

  3. Diets high in saturated fats (primarily from animal products and processed foods), trans fats, and cholesterol have been attributed to heart disease.

  4. Diets high in salt intake can lead to high blood pressure.

  5. Obesity can lead to high triglycerides, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes, all of which are risks for heart disease.

  6. Those with type 2 diabetes are at greater risk of death from heart disease than those without diabetes.

  7. A diet high in sugar leads to high triglycerides. High triglycerides lead to atherosclerosis.

  8. Not getting enough physical exercise increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. Regular exercise can lower this risk.

  9. Tobacco use significantly increases the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.

10. Unsaturated fats are protective against heart disease. Unsaturated fats include

monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), and omega-3

fatty acids.

11. Atherosclerosis and heart disease development is an inflammatory process that has a dietary basis and can be modified with diet.

12. Diet can affect the health of the gut microbiota, which may be involved in the development of cardiovascular disease.

We can control these factors to a large degree. There are other factors beyond our control, but much of heart disease can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle and especially with a healthy diet. The typical Western diet is considered pro-inflammatory, while a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains is considered anti-inflammatory. The Mediterranean diet ranks as one of the most heart-healthy diets available.

Mediterranean diet components

The Mediterranean Diet improves blood pressure, lipids, body weight, glucose metabolism, and the gut microbiome. The heart-healthy effects are due to antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, polyphenols, fiber, PUFAS, MUFAs, and omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, it is a diet that inherently is low in sugar, salt, saturated fats, processed and red meats, and ultra-processed foods. (See post 10/12/22 on the Mediterranean Diet for Children).

The DASH diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet but is more restrictive of salt intake and is effective in lowering blood pressure, improving body weight, blood sugar, lipids, and the gut microbiome.

Research has shown that both these diets can lower the amount of inflammatory markers in the blood that lead to cardiovascular disease, thus having a protective effect in the development of heart disease.

Next week’s article will provide further dietary advice and specific recommendations for improving heart health and preventing heart disease.

You can start protecting your child now against heart disease so they won’t suffer decades later.

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