Did you know that over one million people die each year from a heart attack, and a heart attack almost always due to the slow, long term breakdown of their cardiovascular system? My name is Lee Sharp; an avid participant in the Green Gossip health blog here in Florida, and a long time advocate towards a better selection of heart healthy foods in our schools. Thanks to advancements in medical science and the simple fact that more Americans are choosing food wiser, the number of deaths resulting from heart attacks has been falling since the turn of the century; we need to keep these figures going in the right direction. After being a witness to a loved one who fell victim to this silent killer, I felt obligated to write about it for others before they too may have to suffer an unnecessary loss. Did you know that heart disease is one of the most preventable killers on the menu of death?
Unfortunately, cardiovascular disease (i.e., heart disease ) is still the number one killer in the United States, and the underlying problem with it is the difficulty in detecting it until is has progressed to advanced stages that usually consist of severely clogged arteries (i.e., arteriosclerosis). So often, the adverse effects of heart disease develop over decades and then suddenly appear in the form of a stroke or heart attack. As many as fifteen million people in the U.S. alone have symptoms of heart disease right now that may be getting overlooked during visits to the doctor, and approximately two million of these people will ultimately suffer from a heart attack at some point in their life. Fortunately, cardiovascular disease is one of the easiest illnesses to prevent, but some simple, yet mandatory diet and lifestyle changes must be adhered to by potential victims. The shocker to all of this heart hype is that we have essentially created this disease for ourselves and become our own worst enemy.
To minimize the risks of becoming a victim of heart disease it is important to have a basic understanding of the certain ingredients in our food, as well as various lifestyle activities that play a predominant role in the development of this silent killer. Most of us have heard of the phrase “blood sugar” at one time or another. Often this term is used by a person who has Diabetes. It refers to the amount of glucose (i.e., sugar) that is present in a person’s blood. The term that we are concerned about with respect to heart disease is a similar one called “blood lipids”. This is the measurement of the total amount of fat in our blood stream. A “lipid” is the name given to any kind of fat found either inside or outside the body. While there are indeed several types of names given to fats in our food chain: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, trans, cis, cholesterol, phospholipids, sterols, etc; the ones that greatly assist in “hardening of the arteries” are cholesterol, saturated fats and trans fats.
The human body pumps billions and billions of red blood cells through a network of blood vessels consisting of arteries, capillaries, and veins, with each pump of the heart muscle. These cells carry vital nutrients and oxygen to all parts of our body. One of these nutrients, cholesterol, which is classified as a “sterol” fat, must travel through our blood stream also. Contrary to what many may think, cholesterol is essential for a healthy body and our body actually produces about 70% of this waxy substance on its own. The other 30% that our body needs must come from our diet. This waxy fat substance also needs a method of being able to travel through the blood, but cholesterol mixes with blood as easy as oil and vinegar blend together. Hence, there are special proteins called “lipoproteins” that are used to transport the cholesterol through the blood. The two types used are Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) and High Density Proteins (HDL). These are also known to many as “good cholesterol” (HDL) and “bad cholesterol” (LDL).
The problem begins with the aforementioned 30% of cholesterol that comes from our diet. For most of us, the Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of foods that provide much more cholesterol than the body needs to function on a healthy level – amounts way in excess above the necessary 30%. Excessive consumption of foods high in cholesterol fulfills the first part of the heart disease domino effect. Levels of cholesterol in the blood have a direct relation to the amount of plaque that builds up over a period of time in our blood vessels. “Plaque” is what the body uses as a natural defense mechanism to address damaged blood vessels. The problem is that even healthy blood vessels can be damaged due to a number of factors including everything from smoking, diabetes, and bacterial infections to hypertension, inflammation, and even high levels of LDL cholesterol. Once our body senses that a blood vessel has been damaged it sends plaque out to the rescue. Normal levels of LDL in the blood will help provide normal levels of plaque onto the walls of the blood vessel in distress. Higher than normal levels of this LDL bad cholesterol can disturb this finely balanced process and cause dangerous build ups of plaque on blood vessel walls, eventually leading to a blockage.
Fortunately though, a healthy body that detects excess levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood has the ability to perform an essential cleansing of it. Our liver, aside from the plethora of biochemical processes and tasks that it already has on hand, also takes on the crucial job of processing excess levels of LDL in the blood and keeping them at healthy levels. But when problems arise, primarily due to the over consumption of cholesterol filled foods, this otherwise standard function can be greatly impaired.
This next phase of the domino effect for heart disease involves none other than… drum roll please… yes… Saturated Fat! We have all indulged ourselves with crispy fried chicken and delicious, greasy french fries more than once right? These foods portray the perfect example of what saturated fats are. Most are aware that saturated fats are not healthy to consume and that they do have some type of connection with heart health and cardiovascular disease , but do you know what that is?
A saturated fat can be thought of as any type of fat that is solid at room temperature such as animal fat, vegetable shortening, margarine, butter, coconut oil, etc. These fats are useless to our body and can only be used as energy but pose no harm when they total no more than 10% of our daily caloric intake. When consumption of these saturated fats exceed the 10% threshold, as in over 90% of diets in the U.S., guess what organ process suffers the most? Yes, it is our liver’s natural cleansing process of LDL. When the liver senses excess levels of saturated fat, its natural function of managing the levels of LDL in our blood is impaired. This results in higher than normal LDL levels in the blood which ultimately leads to an increased build up of plaque on blood vessel walls. Consequently, this initiates the progression of hardening of the arteries or “arteriosclerosis”. The easiest way to combat this problem is to limit intake of saturated fats to not more than 10% of total calories – it really is that simple!
The final part of the heart disease domino effect is…bet you heard of this one too…drum roll again…Trans-Fats! Once again, many of us know that trans fats are bad for us and some even go through the trouble to buy only foods free of this ugly fat, but how do trans fats play their part in heart disease ? A trans fat starts out as an otherwise good and healthy unsaturated fat. By the way, trans fats are made to help certain foods like pie crust’s come out better. They are manufactured to make the big food companies produce better looking and tasting food, but at the expense of your health! So this otherwise healthy unsaturated fat is taken and then an influx of hydrogen is added under pressure. This addition of hydrogen atoms actually alters the molecular shape of the fat and changes it to look just like our ugly friend “Mr. Saturated Fat”. This new altered fat molecule now is a semi-solid like a saturated fat and ready for all those great recipes. But wait, now that this new fat looks and acts just like Mr. Saturated Fat guess what? Sure, our body will be handling it just as so. Our liver’s natural LDL clean up will be once again impaired with the digestion of any trans fats! Additionally, trans fats have been proven to be a carcinogen and cause a breakdown of cell membranes allowing toxins to leak in. This in turn causes mutated genes and thus cancer cells to reproduce. Trans fats also destroy healthy fatty acids that our body needs such as the Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids. There is not one good thing EVER proven about trans fats and they should be removed from all foods that we eat. But if we can not get rid of deadly cigarettes in our society do you thing we can get rid of bad fats?
So now that you know how saturated fat plays a leading role in heart health, unsaturated fats like Omega-3 (i.e., linoleic fatty acids) and Omega-3 (i.e., linolenic fatty acids) actually help lower LDL levels in the blood making them a healthy addition to any diet. Foods like pumpkin seeds, walnuts, flax oil, cold water fish like salmon and sardines, and cod liver oil are all high in Omega-3 unsaturated fat. Decrease your intake of saturated fats, increase your intake of Omega-3 unsaturated fats, and avoid all trans fats! It really is that simple! Eating trans fats is just not worth it and if you do, then be prepared to learn the true meaning of the cliche “risk versus reward”. In closing, a report from Harvard’s University “Women’s Health Watch” newsletter reported that in one study only a 2% increase in calories from trans-fats was linked to a 93% increase in the risk of heart disease .