There is constant squabbling over the virtues of various diets, but a new report published in Cardiovascular Research makes one thing clear: The best way to avoid heart disease is to eat whole and plant-based foods. This is important because people are eating themselves to death: According to the 2017 Global Burden of Disease study, poor food choices account for almost 50 percent of all cardiovascular disease fatalities.
Unfortunately, the typical American diet is filled with ultra-processed foods, which are cheap, tasty, convenient — and detrimental to heart health. And, anecdotally at least, some of us may be relying on such foods even more during the coronavirus pandemic.
Eating this way opens the door for heart disease. “Excess sodium, sugar, trans fat, and ultra-processed foods can increase inflammation and insulin resistance in the blood vessels, which leads to the promotion of plaque in the arteries,” says Michelle Routhenstein, a preventive cardiology dietitian in New York City. Plaque buildup in the arteries can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Gabriele Riccardi, a professor of endocrinology and metabolic diseases at Federico II University of Naples and co-author of the new meta-analysis, which included 99 studies, says that cardiovascular disease risk is reduced when the diet is lower in salt, sugar and refined carbs.
Nutrition research largely supports a whole food, plant-based diet. Let’s unpack that. “Whole” indicates foods that have not been highly processed. Think vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, eggs, poultry and dairy in their simplest forms. An orange, chicken breast or potato are examples of whole foods, while orange-flavored soda, chicken nuggets and barbecue chips are ultra-processed versions.
In a “plant-based” diet, most of the foods you eat come from plants such as vegetables, fruits and beans, rather than animals (meat, poultry, dairy). Most definitions of “plant-based” say there is flexibility to include some fish, eggs, poultry, dairy and meat in the diet, as long as most of the diet comes from plants. So, becoming vegan (meaning you eat no animal-based foods) is not a requirement.
Andrew Freeman, a cardiologist and the co-founder of the Nutrition and Lifestyle Work Group at the American College of Cardiology, recommends that his patients turn to a plant-based diet to reduce cardiovascular disease risk, and said he’s seen astonishing results.
“I’ve seen people whose diabetes, angina or blood pressure goes into remission, I’ve seen autoimmune diseases go away when you cut inflammation,” Freeman says. “The best way to do that is with a plant-based diet, and people get better.”
Laurence Sperling, a practicing preventive cardiologist and professor in preventive cardiology at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, likes plant-based diets because they can be followed long term. He reminds patients that the Greek derivation of diet is diaeta, which means “a way of life.” “There are many fad diets, but they set people up for failure,” Sperling says. “Focus on a plan or pattern that you can do until age 100.”
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, by Cara Rosenbloom