Heart health may be one of the most confusing areas in the nutrition realm, because of the significantly conflicting approaches. For years, many doctors and dietitians have been preaching the “eat less fat, less cholesterol and more whole grains” message for heart health. It’s an understatement to say that most people are extremely frustrated and disappointed to learn that taking this advice may have been doing more harm than good. I’m going to cover the most current research, containing evidence-based information on ten ways to promote a healthy heart and bust the outdated myths on what doesn’t support heart health:
You may have heard…
1) You may have heard through the grapevine, (or even your medical professional) that whole grains (like bread and pasta) are good for heart health. The truth of the matter is that although whole grain is better than white, eliminating grains completely will reap much greater results. Eat less or no grains and more whole vegetables and fruits.
2) You may have heard that drinking orange juice with plant sterols is good for your heart. The truth is that the high sugar content of juice has detrimental effects on heart health. Just like the story with grains, eliminating sugar water (er, juice,) will have a significant impact on heart health. Eat real, whole fruits and skip the juice.
3) You may have heard to stop eating eggs because foods high in cholesterol make your cholesterol levels high. What a huge, ridiculous myth! There is no link between cholesterol in food and the serum cholesterol that you get checked at your doctor’s office. In fact, the very scientists who came up with this theory have discounted it. Eggs are the perfect health food for all people, especially those with heart disease. Eat eggs every morning in confidence, knowing you are doing a good thing for your body, brain and heart.
4) You may have heard that having a high cholesterol level leads to heart disease. This, also, is not true. Many studies have tried to prove this theory, but none have been successful. High cholesterol does not cause heart disease. Elevated cholesterol is a symptom of inflammation, and the cause of inflammation is what’s actually causing heart disease. The reason cholesterol levels increase with inflammation is because the cholesterol comes to the rescue and tries to heal the damage. Cholesterol is essential for our bodies to function, and without cholesterol, we would die. Having high cholesterol should not be alarming, and reducing cholesterol levels does not reduce risk of dealth from heart disease. If you don’t believe me, read what experts Chris Kresser and Mark Sisson have to say about this. Dr. Jonny Bowden’s book “The Great Cholesterol Myth” also covers emerging new science showing that cholesterol levels are a poor predictor of heart disease and artificially treating them with drugs doesn’t help anyone. Don’t stress about your cholesterol level, instead, worry about eating less processed, refined foods and more healthy fat.
5) You may have heard that fat is bad for your heart. This is only true to an extent. Back in the day, our ancestors didn’t get heart disease. They ate eggs, cream and butter… saturated fats. They didn’t have the convenience and processed foods like we do. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reveals that there just isn’t proof to link saturated fat to heart disease or stroke. Saturated fat has been wrongfully accused and the truth is that we need it. Trans fats found in packaged, processed, fried, baked and convenience foods are your heart’s worst enemy. Your body can’t even break down trans fats to be used as energy. Healthy fats are your heart’s best friend. And saturated fat and dietary cholesterol have NEVER been shown to cause heart disease. Your heart needs good fats, found in salmon, egg yolk, avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil and butter (gasp! Yes, I said it! Butter!) Eat healthy fats for your heart and avoid trans fats like the plague.
6) You may have heard that taking a fish oil supplement is good for your heart. This is true, under a certain circumstance. Over the last year, studies have revealed the damaging effects of taking a poor-quality fish oil supplement. It’s better to take a high quality fish oil supplement once per day, or every other day, than a few low quality, potential harmful ones each day. Invest in a high-quality blend of omega-3 fatty acids (liquid or soft gels) with a nice EPA: DHA ratio (preferably a minimum of 600:400.)
7) You may have heard that nutrition starts in the gut. This couldn’t be more true: Probiotics are a foundational stepping stone for overall health, including heart health because digestion begins and ends in the gut. The surplus of research supporting a daily Probiotic and L-Glutamine supplement is overwhelming. At a minimum, go through a round of probiotic and glutamine each year, but I recommend supplementing both daily before meals.
8) You may have heard that carbohydrates are bad for your heart. Wait — you did!? Great! This is one of the key pieces of information that I hope you retain from this article. Carbohydrates, especially from sugar, white flour, grains and starches, are responsible for inflammation which is responsible for leading to heart disease. Eat fruit and veggie carbohydrates and skip the grains, breads, pastas, granola bars and sugary desserts.
9) You may have heard that moderate exercise is good for the heart. It’s true. Get it pumping! Walk the dog, or if you already are, go an extra 15 minutes on one of your walks this week. Try a group exercise class at your local gym. A lot of gyms are offering free trials the first few months of this year. Train for a 5K by finding a local running group for accountability and motivation. Aim for a half hour of cardiovascular activity a few times per week, and make sure it’s something you enjoy, so that you stick with it.
10) You may have heard that stress is bad for the heart. This is true. Reducing overall stress is a good practice for a healthy heart. Stress increases your blood pressure and can cause damage to your arteries, irregular heart rhythms and a weakened immune system. Be kind to your heart by taking moments to breathe throughout your days.
*The key to heart health is to reduce internal inflammation by limiting consumption of sugar, grains and trans fats, eating more healthy fats, taking an anti-inflammatory fish oil supplement, exercising and managing stress. When in doubt, bring it back to the basics and eat real food: fresh meats, whole vegetables, fruits and healthy fats. This topic is close to my heart, as my own father underwent a double bypass surgery a few years ago. I’m always here if you need more guidance, an individualized meal plan to get you on the right track or just a few questions answered.*