Reducing Cardiovascular Disease Risk

As a logical follow-up to last week’s post, let’s look at what we can do to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease.

So far, we learned that eating cholesterol does not increase the risk of cardiovascular events. In fact, 75% of people that suffer a heart attack have normal or low cholesterol levels in the body. Furthermore, taking cholesterol-lowering medications (such as statins) does not reduce the risk of heart attacks in 98% of the population.

So, if cholesterol consumption is irrelevant, what is causing our nations deterioration in cardiovascular health?

One word – inflammation!

It is the process of inflammation that damages the arteries, signaling the body to send cholesterol to protect the area. And it is, once again, inflammation that damages the cholesterol in the blood, causing it to harden, leading to plaque formation and clogged arteries.

There are a few things that cause inflammation. The first is consumption of unstable, easily-oxidized fats . The worst is man-made trans-fats. These are found in most butter replacements and aerosol cooking oils. Another problematic fat would be omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. The biggest offenders here are corn oil, soy oil, and other modern vegetable oils.

Many natural foods, such as nuts and avocados, are quite high in O-6’s but, as long as they are consumed fresh and in moderation, without extremely volatile processing methods, they should not be problematic.

The second biggest cause of inflammation is excess sugar in the blood. If an individual consumes more carbohydrates than their muscles can store, the excess sugar will wreak havoc in the body until insulin forces it into fat storage. Sugar is toxic in very high amounts so it is no surprise that too much, idling in the blood, causes inflammation and damages the arteries.

The third biggest cause of inflammation is eating foods that are detrimental to the gut. Eventually I will have an entire post on gut health but, to put it simply, if you eat enough foods that have the potential to damage the gut lining, the offensive compounds will pass through the gut (a condition referred to as “gut permeability”) and cause inflammation elsewhere in the body. Grains and legumes contain many of these compounds…predominantly lectins. Lectin content can be diminished through extensive soaking, sprouting, and cooking but it’s still not wise to base a diet around such a problematic food.

So, man-made vegetable oils, excessive carbohydrate consumption, and grains cause inflammation…what does that leave?

Instead of using vegetable oils, try cooking at high-temperatures with coconut oil or grass-fed butter. Save your olive oil, avocados, and nuts for raw consumption.

No need to count every gram of carbohydrates; rather, focus on more nutritional sources such as vegetables and fruits (which will also have far less calories and sugar per serving than grains or legumes).

Finally, avoid grains when you can. I personally replaced them altogether with vegetables and locally, humanely-raised meat, but I know the idea of eliminating a food group we have grown up with can be daunting. So, maybe try only eating grains when you go out to your favorite pizza joint or restaurant.

Also, don’t forget to eat your healthy fats! Monounsaturated fats and even saturated fats will be far less inflammatory than grains and legumes. Since you’ll be limiting your intake of problematic carbs, that are high in calories and low in nutrition, a few extra calories from good fats will help keep you feeling satisfied and well-fueled.

As a personal trainer, I always have to mention to stay active as well! The more relaxing walks you can take the better. Throw in a couple weight-training workouts a week and an occasional high-intensity-interval-training session (sprints, rowing, etc) and you’ll be on the path to having a perfectly conditioned heart.

Best of luck!

Cholesterol

This week, I’d like to discuss a topic that, like dietary fats, is surrounded by a great deal of confusion and fear – cholesterol!

First, what is cholesterol? It makes up cell membranes and travels through blood plasma. Its major roles in the body are as follows:

  • Transports fats to be used as energy
  • Allows the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K, E)
  • Helps maintain healthy hormone levels
  • Encases and protects neurons
  • Builds and maintains cells

Cholesterol is essential for life and therefore, the body has its own mechanisms for maintaining healthy levels. It is estimated that the body produces 1,000 to 1,400mgs of cholesterol a day.

An important detail is that very little of the cholesterol you consume actually makes it to the blood, meaning it has little effect on cholesterol levels in the body. However, if you consume enough cholesterol to affect levels in the blood, your body will simply create less, and vice-versa.

It may also be beneficial to list the different forms of cholesterol within the body.

HDL, commonly referred to as “good cholesterol”, carries cholesterol, after its work is done, to the liver to be excreted.

LDL is where a great deal of confusion lies. LDL comes in two forms, large puffy particles or small dense particles. The large puffy LDL carry cholesterol to the areas in the body as needed. One of the major needs for LDL is to cover up lesions caused by inflammation on the walls of arteries. The purpose is to protect the artery from further damage and, if the inflammation ends, the HDL will clear out the LDL. However, if the inflammation continues, the LDL becomes oxidized and hardens, forming a buildup that can lead to clotting…a major cause of cardiovascular disease.

In the early 50’s, research was done on individuals that had suffered cardiovascular events such as heart attacks. The research showed that there was cholesterol present in the inflamed areas of the body so immediately, medical organizations started “educating” the public about the dangers of cholesterol.

Interestingly, the lead researcher realized that cholesterol was merely a symptom, and not a cause of cardiovascular problems, and retracted his findings in 1959. However, the pharmaceutical companies and food industry, in response to the medical community, had already invested too much to reverse their campaign against cholesterol.

In the coming weeks I’ll write a post discussing how to manipulate cholesterol levels as well as how to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. However, I wanted to simply touch upon the importance of cholesterol and dispel any fears regarding its consumption.

My anecdotal experience: I eat 4-6 eggs and almost a pound of beef a day…about 2000mg of cholesterol total. I have eaten this way for over two years now, five days a week, and my HDL has continued to rise as my triglycerides (carried by small, dense LDL particles) and inflammation markers have stayed unbelievably low.

I will continue to track all markers of health and, like everything, will adjust accordingly as necessary. But, at this time, I have no plan of avoiding foods I enjoy due to cholesterol content.

See you all again soon!