How to lower your heart disease risk with nutrition
February is heart health month so it’s a good time to dispel many of the cholesterol myths. Often our clients come to their appointment with their latest cholesterol labs and have been told that they need to lower their cholesterol to prevent heart disease. They are also often told to limit saturated fats, but is that helpful? There are many ways to prevent heart disease through nutrition but let’s make sure we’re looking at the entire picture. Cholesterol and saturated fats have been unfairly blamed for years.
What is cholesterol anyway?
We are led to believe that cholesterol is evil artery-blocking gunk. However, it has many beneficial functions in your body:
- Helps convert sun exposure to vitamin D
- Protects your brain and insulates nerve cells for thoughts/memory
- Is a building block for your trillions of cell membranes
- Is a building block for hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol)
- Is an antioxidant and helps reduce oxidative stress
- Patches damaged blood vessels
- Aids digestion by making bile
It is so important that your liver makes large amounts of it every day. Your liver makes 80% of the cholesterol in your body. Only about 20% comes from food. Avoiding eggs to lower your cholesterol doesn’t have an impact and may deprive you of other valuable nutrients from eggs.
You’ve also been taught that LDL is bad, and HDL is good. HDL and LDL particles are like transport trucks. LDL shuttles cholesterol to your cells to do all those important jobs. HDL shuttles the leftovers back to the liver for recycling. Seems simple enough but it turns out there’s more to it. We also have to consider the number of trucks (particle number) and size of the trucks (particle size) of both LDL and HDL.
Not all LDL is bad, there are 2 different types:
- Small, dense, dangerous LDL particles: heavy (like golf balls) these can sink into the blood vessel wall and start the process of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries which is the first step to heart attacks, strokes, and even dementia). The insulin response from sugar and refined carbs tells your liver to create small particles. Plus, sugar increases inflammation which can also damage the blood vessels.
- Large, fluffy, harmless LDL particles: these are too big and fluffy (like beach balls) to damage the blood vessels. Healthy fats, including saturated fats, create the large particles.
Noteworthy: Standard LDL/HDL blood tests measure the weight of the shuttle trucks (particles), not the particle size or number which misses the true risk picture. Ask your doctor to test for particle size and number.
Do Saturated Fats Raise Cholesterol?
Saturated fats are a type of fat found in coconut oil, red meat, butter, eggs, and cheese. These foods were falsely blamed for contributing to heart disease for years. As explained above, saturated fats increase the large, fluffy, harmless, beach ball LDL particles. These cholesterol particles are not troublesome. So, the more relevant question is are saturated fats good or bad? Recent research (see below) shows that saturated fats are NOT linked to heart disease. But where did we get the idea that saturated fats are bad?
In the 1950s a psychologist Ancel Keyes formulated the “diet-heart hypothesis” which theorized: saturated fat increased cholesterol, and cholesterol caused heart disease. However, this was only a hypothesis based on cherry-picked observational data, not valid experiments. Keyes was passionate and took his theory to Congress and the diet-heart hypothesis was adopted as fact. Fats were deemed as the enemy and the low-fat diet craze started. When fats were removed from processed food, sugar was added (remember Snack Well cookies?). Meanwhile, other valid studies showed sugar’s detriment to heart disease, weight gain and Type 2 Diabetes, but public health continued on the low-fat diet craze. Ancel Keyes’ hypothesis has since been disproven. Recent research shows that eating saturated fat does not cause heart disease. Avoidance of saturated fat to reduce heart disease is outdated and experts are now changing their recommendations.
Expert and educator in the functional medicine and ancestral health field, Chris Kresser, explains some of the research: “….a large meta-analysis of prospective studies involving close to 350,000 participants found no association between saturated fat and heart disease. A Japanese prospective study that followed 58,000 men for an average of 14 years found no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease and an inverse association between saturated fat and stroke (i.e., those who ate more saturated fat had a lower risk of stroke).”
Saturated fats, including red meat, can be part of a heart-healthy diet. Especially if your overall diet also includes lots of vegetables and plant fibers, omega-3 fats, fruit, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Plus, limits processed, packaged foods, sugar, alcohol, and refined grains found in bread and pasta.
Do Eggs Cause High Cholesterol?
Eggs are not linked to heart disease. In fact, they contain lots of beneficial nutrients such as B vitamins and choline (important for brain health, memory, and detox). Pasture-raised eggs contain anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Don’t just eat the whites, egg yolks contain vitamins A, D, E, and K, and antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin which can protect the eyes from diseases like macular degeneration.
Sugar is the Real Problem
Sugar, in all its forms including quick digesting carbs such as bread, pasta, crackers, bagels, baked goods, fruit juice, soda and alcohol, raise blood glucose levels and create insulin spikes. This increases the small, dense, dangerous forms of cholesterol. Plus lots of insulin spikes create more inflammation in people who are sensitive, contribute to the thickening of the walls of the blood vessels, slow down your metabolism and can lead to weight gain, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Coincidently, the low-fat diet craze that replaced fat for sugar coincides with increased rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
What foods lower cholesterol? Or a better question is what foods help prevent heart disease?
A low-fat diet is not the answer. A low-sugar diet is.
Your heart healthy diet looks like this:
- Fiber from lots of vegetables and root vegetables. With veggies aim for a variety of color. Choose red peppers, green broccoli, orange carrots, purple turnips, yellow squash, … lots of color. Also, fiber is in beans and grains in their whole form (not made into a flour) such as brown rice and quinoa.
- Antioxidants are one of the reasons colorful veggies are so good for us. We also find antioxidants in dark berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries), cacao and dark chocolate (which is usually low in sugar), spices such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, cumin and cinnamon, and herbs like rosemary, oregano, sage, and basil. Healthy food should also be flavorful so use your herbs and spices!
- Anti-inflammatory fats from fish especially wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies; nuts and seeds such as almonds, macadamia, pecans, walnuts, chia, flax and pumpkin seeds; olive oil and olives; avocado and avocado oil.
- Remember saturated fats are ok in eggs, butter, coconut oil, and red meat (organic, grass-fed is best).
- Eat much less bread, pasta, noodles, crackers, chips, processed foods, sugar, desserts, soda and alcohol.
- Avoid vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, canola, safflower, sunflower peanut, and cottonseed. These are polyunsaturated Omega-6 oils (PUFAs) which are very processed with chemicals and high heat. They easily oxidize starting the process of turning cholesterol in your blood stream into dangerous plaque. Too many Omegas-6s skew your ratio with anti-inflammatory Omega-3s. All these factors make vegetable oils inflammatory and increase heart attack risk. For more about PUFAs read Stacy’s insights.
- Avoid trans fats. These are man-made fats by adding hydrogen molecules to vegetable oil to make it solid. These are evil and the FDA ruled as “not safe to eat” in 2013. There is strong research showing trans-fats are linked to heart attacks and heart disease. However, they could still be lurking in your food. Check your peanut butter, margarine, shortening (Crisco), Pam spray, microwave popcorn, and frosting for the ingredient “partially hydrogenated” oil or “hydrogenated” oil.
- For more heart healthy recommendations we covered this topic before and wrote a guest article in Delicious Living magazine.
Below are a couple of our favorite heart healthy recipes. Happy eating and stay well!
P.S. Looking to learn more? We recommend Dr Mark Hyman’s book Eat Fat, Get Thin which discusses these topics in detail and lists all the research studies.
Jen’s Curried Lentils
- Makes 4-6 servings
- Great for breakfast
- 1 cup of French lentils, soaked for 4-6 hours with 1 tsp apple cider vinegar, then rinsed well
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 2 celery stocks, diced
- 2 carrots, diced
- 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 TBSP coconut oil
- 1-2 tsp cumin
- 1-2 tsp turmeric
- 1-2 tsp curry powder
- Pinch of cayenne (optional)
- 4 cups of water or stock (you can buy chicken/ veggie stock in the same aisle as broth, but the stock does not contain the high amounts of sodium)
- 2 cups of spinach leaves or chopped kale
How to prepare:
- In a pot sauté minced fresh ginger, garlic, onions, celery and carrots in coconut oil
- Add cumin, turmeric, curry powder, and cayenne
- Cook until veggies are soft
- Add lentils and 4 cups of water or chicken stock
- Bring to boil
- Reduce and simmer covered until lentils are cooked and water/ stock is absorbed
- When finished add spinach or chopped kale and cook just until greens are wilted
Vital Choice, Wild Planet or Lisa and Henry’s brand of canned wild, Alaskan salmon – boneless, skinless variety
- Mix with mayo or stone-ground mustard (the same way as tuna) and chopped celery, salt, pepper
- Serve over spinach salad greens dressed with olive oil and lemon or apple cider vinegar
- Add your favorite veggies such as radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and bell peppers
- Top with avocado slices or pumpkin seeds
- 3 cups unsweetened almond milk
- ½ cup chia seeds
How to prepare:
- Whisk the almond milk and chia seeds together in a large bowl.
- Let sit for 5-10 minutes and then whisk again (to help prevent clumping).
- Cover and chill in the fridge for 2.5-3 hours, or overnight. It helps to stir the mixture a few times, but it’s not necessary.
- Stir well before serving.
- Add desired toppings.
Leftovers will keep in an air-tight container in the fridge for 3-5 days.
- Fresh berries
- Unsweetened, dried coconut flakes
- Cinnamon and/ or nutmeg
- Ground ginger
- Raw cacao powder
- Cacao nibs
- Slivered almonds, pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds
- Sliced banana
- Almond butter
- Coconut butter
Disclaimer: Nutrition therapy is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, prescription, or cure for any disease, or as a substitute for medical care. Jen Marshall and Stacy St Germain are not licensed medical providers. Nutrition plans are not intended as a substitution for traditional medical care, nor should be interpreted as medical advice, but instead is an adjunctive and supportive therapy.