8 Ways to Prevent Heart Disease

EatingWellLivingWell.jpgBy Richard Béliveau, Ph.D., and Denis Gingras, Ph.D.

If you agree with the adage “you can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred”, spoken by the curmudgeon himself Woody Allen, you may be selling heart health short.

The truth is, changing a few habits can vastly improve not only your overall health, but your every day dining experience.

Don’t believe it? Check this out:

Eat your vegetables (and fruit)
– If you’d rather open a bag of chips than eat a potato, consider this: each daily portion of fruits and vegetables reduces by about 4% the risk of coronary diseases, which is an excellent reason to eat these foods as often as possible.

An impressive number of studies have shown that eating a lot of fruits and veg is directly linked to a reduced risk of coronary disorders. This effect is particularly significant for green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, etc.–the smelly ones, unfortunately), and those rich in vitamin C (green vegetables in general).

How this protective effect works is only partly understood but probably has to do with several of the molecules contained in these foods. Plant foods contain high levels of phytochemical compounds, particularly certain polyphenols called flavonoids, that have very high antioxidant activity. These properties are significant as they make it possible to offset the harmful effects associated with some oxidation processes, particularly that of LDL cholesterol, a key factor in the formation of atheromatous plaque.

While all plants have a positive impact on the risk of cardiovascular disease, some stand out. In particular, make friends with broccoli.

Broccoli shows a marked reduction in the risk of heart disease, and observations from a pilot study seem to show that consumption of young broccoli stems (100 g per day for a week) reduces LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and increases HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). More recently, another study has shown that broccoli’s protective role could also be linked to its ability to improve the heart’s muscle function and protect it from damage caused by free radicals. This is apart from the fact that a diet rich in green vegetables such as the cruciferous kind also helps increase the intake of folic acid, a very important vitamin (B9) in heart disease prevention.

Whole grains –
Who would believe that a change in lifestyle as simple as replacing everyday white bread with bread containing whole grains could reduce the risk of coronary disease and stroke by 40%? But it really can!

Whole grains are one of those foods whose remarkable impact on the prevention of chronic diseases is greatly underestimated. Whole grains contain an abundance of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, phytochemical compounds, and fibres present in both the bran (outside layer) and the germ (layer inside the bran). It is becoming increasingly clear that all these act synergistically to prevent the development of heart disease. In addition, eating whole grains helps to prevent too great a variation in blood sugar levels, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes.

Nuts – We absolutely must rediscover nuts, too often dismissed because of their high fat content.
They are a remarkable source of monounsaturated fats that are beneficial to the health of the cardiovascular system. Studies have shown that daily consumption of oalmonds.jpgne portion of nuts reduces the risk of coronary disease by as much as 30%! This effect is even more pronounced if the nuts are replacing “processed” snacks rich in sugar, saturated fats, or trans fats. So, if the bag of chips still looms large in your mind, try a handful of nuts instead.

Omega-3 –
The first indication of the benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids came from studies conducted among the Inuit of Greenland who, despite a diet almost exclusively based on the consumption of sea animal meat, are surprisingly unaffected by heart disease.
The animals in their diet, and most fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel, contain large amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that play a major role in the prevention of certain coronary diseases.
Even modest consumption of about 250 to 500 mg of EPA and DHA a day – barely equivalent to a half-portion (100 g) of salmon – reduces by about 40% the risk of mortality due to coronary disease. And this positive effect sets in quickly: Studies have shown that regular consumption of fatty fish causes positive effects on the heart within weeks by reducing episodes of arrhythmia, a pathology often responsible for sudden death.

Green tea – Recent studies show that people who drink at least two cups of green tea a day (about 500 mL) have a 16% lower mortality rate than those who drink less. This effect is especially pronounced in women: While the mortality rate of men who are regular tea drinkers is reduced by 12%, that of females is 23% lower, resulting in a protective effect two times greater! This protective effect seems mainly due to a major reduction in mortality rates associated with coronary disease (25%) and especially with stroke (60%).

Chocolate – Numerous studies have shown that cocoa paste contains very high amounts of proanthocyanidin, a class of polyphenols that has many properties beneficiachocolate.jpgl to health. For example, Kuna Indians, who live on islands near Panama, consume huge amounts of cacao and have normal blood pressure despite a high-salt diet. This is due to the positive effect of cacao polyphenols on the dilatation of arteries, and the decrease in platelet aggregation, two factors that play a major role in the development ofhypertension and heart disease.

A recent study shows that people who regularly consume 70% dark chocolate (about 20 g per day) show a marked improvement in blood flow, while no improvement is observed in those who eat “processed” chocolate, which contains very little cocoa paste.

Sound too good to be true? Well, be careful — studies have shown that milk prevents the absorption of dark chocolate’s polyphenols, thereby neutralizing its beneficial effects. It is therefore always preferable to consume dark chocolate unaccompanied by milk.

A similar phenomenon is observed with tea: While consumption of tea leads to a significant improvement in the ability of arteries to dilate, which confirms that the polyphenols contained in tea have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system, adding milk completely reverses this effect and neutralizes its positive effects on the cardiovascular system.

redredwine.jpgRed wine – Red wine is a very complex product that contains several thousand chemicalcompounds, but it is generally acknowledged that the positive effects associated withmoderate consumption of wine are mainly due to a molecule called resveratrol. This molecule,which is found in significant quantities only in red wine, has many positive effects on the cardiovascular system, including restricting the formation of blood clots that can block blood vessels, causing serious problems. Red wine’s protective effect against heart disease has been well illustrated and is now called the “French paradox”: People who regularly drink red wine have quite a low mortality rate for heart disease, despite the presence of many risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, and highlevels ofblood cholesterol.

Physical activity – We cannot overemphasize the importance of regular physical activity in preventing heart disease and maintaining good health in general. An impressive number of studies have shown that the simple act of walking at a good pace for two and a half hours a week (or 30 minutes a day) – not an enormous effort – reduces the risk of heart disease by 30% to 50%!

So let’s review. For good health and longevity you can indulge in nuts, chocolate and red wine, plus take a pleasant walk a couple of times a week. That medicine doesn’t seem so hard swallow, does it?

Excerpted from Eating Well, Living Well Copyright © 2009 by Richard Béliveau, Ph.D., and Denis Gingras, Ph.D. Translated by Valentina Baslyk. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart. All rights reserved.