Heart disease is at the top of the list when it comes to fatal non-communicable illness. In fact, cardiovascular disease (which includes coronary heart disease, hypertensive heart disease, and stroke) is our number-one global killer with approximately 810,000 deaths annually in North America alone. These numbers are particularly bothersome when one considers that heart disease is rooted in many diet and lifestyle factors we have control over.
Unfortunately, the advice coming from governments in the form of their respective dietary guidelines and various other health sources seems conflicting, and people are left confused as to what helps and what hurts their cardiovascular health.
As with most things regarding human physiology and nutrition, there is no simple one phrase answer. We are each genetically individual and unique, bearing our own personal set of genetic risks. Some people may be more prone to heart disease than others due to family history, lifestyle, and other variables. Other people will have lower risk of cardiovascular events, but may still be concerned about eating for cardiovascular health and longevity.
The principles of the Paleo diet and a Paleo-based lifestyle are heart-healthy, especially due to the emphasis on a variety of vegetables and protective fats, like salmon and sardines and the encouragement of movement, community, sleep and sunshine. Recent research has indicated that saturated fat is not damaging to the heart as was once suspected, but rather, processed carbohydrates and refined sweeteners are more to blame. A well formulated Paleo diet (one based on whole, minimally processed food choices) naturally eliminates many of the catalysts for cardiovascular issues. Even within these guidelines, there are specific foods that can offer some great benefits for the heart and the cardiovascular system.
What should you eat so that your heart stays healthy?
These fat-filled fruits are already a Paleo favorite. They are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats along with numerous vitamins and minerals that help keep the cardiovascular system strong, namely vitamin K (aids in proper blood clotting), magnesium (promotes muscle relaxation and electrolyte balance), and potassium (helps to regulate blood pressure). Consumption of ½ – 1½ avocados a day may help to maintain normal serum total cholesterol. More evidence that good fats are good for you in every way.
Nutrients in Brussels sprouts help to lower systemic inflammation and reduce arterial plaque buildup, along with improving blood vessel function.
Blueberries are rich in anthocyanins and flavonoids which are antioxidants that can decrease blood pressure and dilate blood vessels reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
High in flavonoids that are linked with a reduced rate of ischemic stroke caused by blood clots, and rich in vitamin C which has been associated with lower risk of heart disease, like atherosclerosis, adding more citrus to your diet can boost your heart health. Furthermore, adding citrus to your dark leafy greens will almost quadruple the amount of iron you absorb.
In humans, foods like cacoa which are high in flavonols counteract lipid peroxidation and, therefore, lower blood plasma levels and support heart health. When consuming ensure to choose a product that is as close to the whole food, 100% cacao as you can find!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
EVOO may help lower your risk of heart disease by improving related risk factors. High quality Extra Virgin Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats which have been found to lower your total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. Promote your heart health by upping your intake of this delicious fat in favor of relying too heavily on nuts.
Researchers estimate the rate of cardiac arrest decreases with consumption of three cups of green tea per day. Catechins, the major polyphenolic compounds in green tea, exert vascular protective effects through multiple mechanisms, including anti-oxidative, anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory and lipid lowering effects.
Wild caught Salmon is one of the best sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids which can lower the risk of irregular heart beat as well as reducer plaque buildup in the arteries. Salmon is a superfood for the cardiovascular system because of these essential polyunsaturated fats. When consumed regularly, salmon can help to reduce blood pressure, lower resting heart rate, and improve vascular flow. Make sure it’s wild-caught, though, or the full nutritional benefits will not be realized as farmed fish are lower in nutrients and higher in toxins.
This dark, leafy green is loaded with lutein (a carotenoid), B-complex vitamins, folate, magnesium, potassium, calcium and fiber. Lutein is found in beneficial HDL cholesterol and may prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and promoting heart disease.
Cardio-protective functions provided by the nutrients in tomatoes may include the reduction of LDL cholesterol, homocysteine, platelet aggregation, and blood pressure. Because tomatoes include several nutrients associated with these effects and are widely consumed year-round, they may be considered a valuable component of a cardio protective diet.
Focus on fiber
The fiber in nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds can go a long way to protect the cardiovascular system. Fiber consumption is associated with lower risk of stroke and heart disease, and some types of fiber can reduce LDL cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and promote healthy body weight. (In addition, the plant foods that deliver fiber to your body contain powerful antioxidants and helpful micronutrients that support cardiovascular health in additional ways.)
The Saturated Fat Debate
Eating saturated fat in reasonable, not excessive, quantities is considered to be a part of a health-promoting Paleo diet. Although the idea that high-saturated fat animal foods cause heart disease has been discredited, eating excessive quantities of saturated fat (meaning significantly more than whole foods can naturally provide) is still a question mark in terms of long-term effects on human health To be safe, focus on saturated fats in their whole-food form (such as organ meats and eggs), while also getting a variety of monounsaturated fats (avocado, olive, macadamia nut), some polyunsaturated fats (a few nuts and seeds) and omega-3s (from our powerhouse wild caught salmon) from our diet.
A few lifestyle considerations
Make the commitment to engage in gentle movement throughout the day. Although chronic over-training can actually harm the cardiovascular system by raising cortisol and inflammatory markers, frequent gentle movement helps improve insulin sensitivity and circulation.
Get your daily dose on vitamin D. In a number of studies, vitamin D deficiency has been strongly associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Whether getting daily sun exposure is or is not an option, eating vitamin-D-rich foods like fatty fish and egg yolks, as well as supplementing when needed, can help protect against the cardiovascular-harming effects of deficiency.
Sleep and Stress Management
Furthermore, stress is a bigger predictor of cardiovascular disease than any other diet or lifestyle factor. Make every effort to reduce avoidable stressors, or to manage existing chronic stress (through meditation, taking walks, getting time in nature, or other activities). This will directly translate into increased protection against cardiovascular disease.
By emphasizing these components of a Paleo diet and lifestyle, you are taking active steps towards maintaining the health and integrity of your cardiovascular system and avoiding the world’s number one killer!