In honor of Heart Health Month, we are going to discuss some basics for a heart-healthy lifestyle. Currently heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, responsible for 1 in 4 deaths every year (1). Two main focuses to prevent or reverse heart disease are diet and exercise. Other factors to consider for heart health include smoking, alcohol consumption, B12 levels, hyperpalatable foods and weight maintenance.
A whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet has been shown to successfully reverse atherosclerotic plaques, as demonstrated by angiograms, in studies conducted by Dr. Esselstyn (3). The diet in these studies included lots of leafy greens, fresh fruits, a variety of beans, lentils, and whole grains and did not include vegetable oils. A WFPB diet for health maintenance can include whole food sources of fat, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and whole olives, however for disease reversal even these healthy sources of fat should be reduced.
Plant foods tend to have more monounsaturated fats, which are associated with reduced risk for heart disease. In comparison, animal foods tend to have more saturated fats, which are associated with an increased risk for heart disease. Saturated fats greatly increase LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), thereby increasing the risk for heart disease (4). Tropical oils such as coconut oil and palm oil are sources of concentrated saturated fats, therefore these items should be limited but preferably eliminated from the diet. A recent meta-analysis (a study that combines data from many previous studies to look at the big picture) found that coconut oil raises LDL (5). A WFPB diet is also rich in fiber, which can help lower cholesterol levels. In a sense fiber “grabs” cholesterol in the GI tract and helps carry the cholesterol out of the body. Collectively, these are some of the reasons why at Embee Lifestyle Docs, we support a WFPB diet for heart health.
Be active! The guidelines for physical activity recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise OR at least 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise per week (2). At a moderate intensity, your heart rate is up, but you’re able to hold a conversation. At a vigorous intensity, you can’t have a conversation. The recommended times include both aerobic activity (often called cardio) and strength training. Aim to strength train at least 2 days per week, gradually increasing the weight over time to keep your muscles working. In addition to having heart health benefits, lifting weights improves bone density and increases muscle mass. This can translate to functional benefits as we age (such as being able to stand up from a chair on your own). The basic idea is to be active and pick an activity you enjoy so that you can do it consistently.
This February let’s make ourselves and our friends and family healthy by eating a WFPB diet and being active. Lifestyle Docs would like to thank Christine Crumbley, PhD for writing this outstanding post on Hearth Health!
- Heart Disease Facts | cdc.gov
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition
- A plant-based diet and coronary artery disease: a mandate for effective therapy
- A Century of Cholesterol and Coronaries: From Plaques to Genes to Statins
- The Effect of Coconut Oil Consumption on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials | Circulation