Diet for Cardiovascular Support
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
– Risk factors associated with developing CVD
– Coronary heart disease
– Diabetes, blood sugar, insulin and CVD
– Methylation and cardiovascular disease
– Foods and substances linked to increasing the risk of CVD
– Gluten link to cardiovascular disease
– Foods that support heart disease or prevention
– Healthy eating for a healthy cardio vascular system
– Intermittent fasting to support cardiovascular health
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a term used to describe unhealthy conditions of the heart and blood vessels, also known as the vascular system. Heart attacks, coronary heart disease, angina and stroke are common forms of CVD.
In many countries coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death, which is a horrible statistic, particularly considering that that a healthy diet and lifestyle can play an important role in preventing and also managing CVD.
In this article we focus on healthy diet and encourage anyone with CVD, or with a family history of it, to take measures to support your body and be as healthy as possible to reduce the risk factors, and also seek medical advice.
Risk factors associated with developing CVD
- High blood cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Smoking or taking drugs
- Physical inactivity
- Being overweight, especially central obesity
- Alcohol consumption (from both the sugar and the alcohol)
- Diabetes or Insulin resistance
- Thyroid conditions (underactive thyroid often has high cholesterol)
- Genetic predisposition/family history
- Older age
- Poor diet, high in trans fats and sugar
There are different aspects of heart disease, such as cholesterol, high blood pressure, clogged arteries, a heart attack, or stroke. The consistent feature is that the vascular system is not working properly for various reasons.
Let’s look at some of these factors…
Coronary heart disease
Coronary heart disease is characterised by narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Fatty deposits or plaque clings to the artery walls and clogs the arteries which makes it more likely for a blood clot to form. A heart attack occurs when a blood clot blocks one of the arteries to the heart. This prevents the flow of blood and oxygen supply to the heart which damages or kills the heart cells.
Diabetes, blood sugar, insulin and CVD
Blood sugar balance issues such as diabetes or insulin resistance can also be linked to CVD. Sugar is very sticky in the blood and diabetics are more prone to have sticky blood which can lead to lower limb loss, kidney failure and blindness. Sticky blood can also contribute to cardiovascular disease.
You don’t need to be a diabetic to have an issue with sugar balance. Insulin (secreted in response to sugar consumption) is a fat storing hormone which will increase weight (another factor that can contribute to CVD) and some of that fat also gets stored in the arteries. A double whammy!
Methylation and cardiovascular disease
One of the first health conditions to be linked to defective methylation processes is cardiovascular disease. For more information see my article What is Methylation?
As early as the 1960’s elevated homocysteine levels were thought to be a significant risk factor with cardiovascular disease, premature thromboembolism, and atherosclerosis.
Homocysteine is regulated by B6, B12 and folate. These days more research shows there are hundreds of additional environmental and physiological risk factors involved in cardiovascular disease development. Many of these risk factors have been shown to disrupt methylation processes.
It is now considered that cardiovascular disease is a disease related to diet and lifestyle, rather than just looking at factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure or even homocysteine. Today, clinicians focus on why these factors are present, and what can be done with diet and lifestyle to correct imbalances before a cardio situation arises.
There seems to be a huge number of causes to potentially target, but it’s good to know that each of these risk factors share a few pathophysiological mechanisms. These are are inflammation, oxidative stress, and/or insulin resistance. With this in mind we can certainly target these areas with a diet to support cardiovascular disease.
Foods and substances linked to increasing the risk of CVD
Foods that have been linked to increase cardiovascular disease include trans fats, PUFA’s (poly unsaturated fatty acids), sugars, sugar plus fat together (think pastries), too much sodium salt (and not enough other salts like potassium or magnesium).
Processed foods and food chemicals such as additives and preservatives, in fact anything artificial, can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and are not appropriate for any health condition. I also do not recommend dairy products, including cheeses.
It is more important what you leave out rather than what you add into your diet.
It was once thought that saturated animal fats were the bad culprits for increasing CVD, but the tide is turning, although the verdict is still out. The new culprit seems to be the combination of sugar and fats, especially if the fats are from animal fat replacements such as hydrogenated vegetable oils which are super-heated to make them solid for table spreads.
Vegetable oil that is not super-heated or hydrogenated seems to be fine. To be on the safe side: only use raw oils for dressing; keep cuts of meat lean: and for cooking, use heat stable forms of oils such as coconut oil, rice bran oil or grape-seed oil.
It seems the issue is more about oxidation of certain foods and substances that cause the build-up in arteries. For example, hydrogenated oils, processed foods and sugar create a lot of oxidation in the body. For this reason, many foods that support cardiovascular disease are rich in antioxidants.
Other oxidising substances are cigarette smoke, alcohol, chemicals of any kind, drugs, charred foods, any foods cooked beyond mid brown (unless it is a brown food already of course).
This is about the degree of burning, or ‘oxidation’ in science speak. We can relate to the browning of a cut apple left for a while – that’s oxidation. Rust is oxidation and we know that rust is a ‘cancer’ of the car or any metal object. We don’t want this ‘rust’ in our body either or it may ‘rust up our pipes’ – our arteries.
Gluten link to cardiovascular disease
There are some who call gluten sensitivity the ‘silent killer’.
I watched a health summit series hosted by Dr Tom O’Bryan. He organised the health summit because his father died from a heart attack for ‘unknown causes’, or so it appeared initially. The doctor who performed the initial autopsy on Tom’s father said he had a heart attack but could not find a reason why.
Tom took it further, arranged more tests, and discovered that his father had a gluten sensitivity. But his father had been totally unaware of this as he had no apparent symptoms and ate foods daily that contained gluten.
The gluten sensitivity was not an allergy like coeliac disease but it was enough to create inflammation in the father’s body. In turn this created leaky gut/intestinal permeability and consequently poor absorption of nutrients, nutrient insufficiency (particularly of the B vitamins, especially B12 and folate, which elevated his homocysteine levels). Thus the end result was a heart attack.
This will not be the case for everyone as different genetics and lifestyle factors come into play.
There is now so much research into the negative effects of gluten, that it would be irresponsible to include it in a healthy food regime for any condition. Every health seminar I have attended over the last 30+ years has advocated a gluten free diet to help support the healing process and avoid disease.
Foods that support heart disease or prevention include:
As mentioned before, many of the foods to support cardiovascular health are rich in antioxidants.
- Fruits such as apples, pears, oranges, and all berries
- Red, yellow, green bell peppers aka capsicums
- Broccoli, cauliflower and other brassica family veggies
- Celery, eggplant, squash, pumpkin
- Dark leafy greens, such as kale, spinach and other greens like zucchini
- Garlic, onions and the onion family such as chives, spring onions
- Nuts and seeds and their milks
- Coconut milk, coconut yoghurt & coconut flesh
- Chicken or turkey – skinless and boneless preferable
- Fish, high in omega-3s, such as herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, tuna
- Pork tenderloin
- Tofu and soy based products
- Beans, canned or dried, such as black, garbanzo, kidney, navy, and pinto
- Broths – chicken, beef or vegetable with reduced sodium
- Flaxseeds ground or whole
- Quinoa – whole grain or flakes
- Rice – brown, wild, and red
- Tomato paste, puree, low salt types
- Tomatoes – whole or diced, reduced-salt tinned, or fresh/cooked
- Keep sodium salt to a minimum (mineral rich Celtic or Himalayan is better but only have small amounts)
Healthy eating for a healthy cardio vascular system
While there can be genetic influences for heart disease, food is directly involved in many of the risk factors. Most people know the type of foods and lifestyle habits that contribute to heart disease, but it is often not until you are confronted with a cardio vascular disease diagnosis, that the reality of your former diet and lifestyle habits becomes all too apparent.
Even though it may take many years to ‘silently’ build up to a serious problem, your body can still respond to your loving care and attention. But was your body really ‘silent’? Or did you ignore the signals your body had been giving you? In other words, is delaying loving care and attention worth it?
When it comes to preventative health, the majority of people appear to be masters of procrastination.
I have heard when someone has a heart attack, following the tests and immediate care, there is often a six to eight-week healthy eating program planned, but from there the patient is on their own to decide what to do.
This is where a qualified, experienced health practitioner can help with dietary recommendations to keep you on track. There are numerous sustainable cardio-supportive recipes for you and your family to enjoy, including foods to address and combat inflammation, oxidation and insulin resistance.
You may also wish to incorporate intermittent fasting if you feel it could benefit you.
Intermittent fasting to support cardiovascular health
There has been recent research into the various types of intermittent fasting. This is not the ‘starve yourself for 24hrs or more’ fasting discipline, but more about elongated gaps between meals.
Spacing of meals gives your body time to repair, process the food previously eaten, clean the system, discard waste, use fat stores for energy rather than deposit it where it is unwanted (such as your arteries or waistline), and take the load off your organs e.g. the liver.
When we pile food on top of food, the body works overtime digesting, which uses up a tremendous amount of energy. Consequently the chance for the body to self-heal and repair itself falls by the wayside. It’s no wonder we get tired after a big meal.
There are various versions of intermittent fasts. Following is information on the two main ones.
The first is the 5:2 diet. This is where you eat normal healthy food three or so times per day for five days a week and have two days a week where you eat one meal of around 500 calories (2092 KJ) for women and 600 calories (2500 KJ) for men, at any time of the day that suits you.
The two ‘fasting’ days do not have to be consecutive, for example, you could pick a Sunday and Thursday.
The second style of intermittent fasting uses the principle of eating only two meals a day with one eight-hour gap and one sixteen-hour gap. For example, you may have brunch at 11am and dinner at 7pm. This becomes a regular daily event rather than something that is done twice per week. These hours can be varied to suit your work and lifestyle habits provided the eight-hour/sixteen-hour concept remains the same.
According to research, the amount of calories in intermittent fasting doesn’t seem to matter. Eat what feels comfortable for your body without overloading. Also drink plenty of water or herbal teas throughout the day to keep your fluids up and give your liver and kidneys help to flush out toxins.
More studies need to be done on humans, but research on mice have shown that these types of intermittent fasting reduce cholesterol, blood pressure, the risk of heart disease and increase longevity (the mice studied were reported to live the equivalent of an extra 20-30 human years). The studies showed a reduced risk of cancer, increased lean muscle mass, and decreased fat mass, overall delivering more energy and vitality.
There have also been human studies that have shown good results regarding health risks such as cholesterol, blood pressure and fat mass.
Before trialling intermittent fasting, I recommend consulting your practitioner to see if this is suitable for you and your current health. If given the all clear, then consider trialling both types to see what works best for you.
There are other variations you can experiment with. For example, some people I know like to have alternate days of eating three meals one day and two meals the next and this works for them.
One of my clients loved to have a complete fast one day a week, only drinking water and herbal tea. He had his dinner on Saturday night, then not eat solid food till breakfast on Monday, a total of 36hrs of fasting.
He reported feeling very energised and ready for the working week by doing this. He didn’t sleep all day as you might expect on the fasting day; he did lots of fun things like bush walking, swimming, kayaking, surfing and playing with his grandchildren.
The key is to look after your body and ensure you give it the care it deserves so you can regenerate and replenish. It’s all about falling in love…with yourself!
Another good diet that works well in conjunction with intermittent fasting is the Ketogenic diet, as it offers a low carb, moderate protein, and high fat option that has been shown to be beneficial with some cardio diseases. But do check with your integrative doctor as this diet does not suit some, especially those with high cholesterol.
While a diet for cardiovascular disease support is not a cure, it can go a long way to healing and revitalising your body. To help your body to do its natural job of healing, the idea is to bring balance to your body by eliminating foods considered detrimental, and including supportive nutritious foods.
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance. Also do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional, who may even prescribe extra supplementation.
Note: During the early stages of your new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
A middle-aged guy who came to my clinic had previously suffered a recent heart attack but the doctors and specialist couldn’t find anything wrong with his heart or vascular system. They told him they didn’t know why it happened, so made no recommendations. He lived with the fear of it happening again, hence the appointment with me.
On examining him, I thought it would be important to check his thyroid as I saw in his eye examinations (sclerology and iridology) that he had weakness in the thyroid area that was showing quite brightly (acute) and there is research suggesting that an underactive thyroid can affect the cardiovascular system.
But his doctor refused to arrange the thyroid test because the client wasn’t overweight or cold (common symptoms of an underactive thyroid) and although he was tired, the doctor put that down to the heart attack. So we then had to arrange for the thyroid tests to be done privately, which cost him more.
His thyroid showed to be very underactive (high TSH), so he went back to the doctors with the results and was promptly put onto medication for an underactive thyroid.
We also worked on why his thyroid was underactive. To do this we tested his levels of key nutrients needed for a healthy thyroid such as zinc, B6, B12, folate, tyrosine, iodine and selenium. We checked his heavy metal levels, gut function and for any food intolerances. We also checked antibodies for thyroid and other cardiovascular markers such as homocysteine (which is related to to cardiovascular health and low levels of B12 and folate).
When the results came back we saw that he had low B12 levels and also an intolerance to gluten. As a meat eater he would have been consuming sufficient B12 foods, but because his gut was affected by gluten, he was probably unable to absorb or convert the B12 in his system.
Conversion of B12 needs the help of good levels of friendly bacteria which were also showing low in his digestive testing. Because of low B12 his homocysteine level was elevated, which is a cardiovascular risk factor, and may have been a contributing factor. While the homocysteine level wasn’t super high, the combination with the low B12, low thyroid activity and low gut bacteria was a recipe for something disastrous, which for him was the heart attack.
By removing the gluten and associated cross-reactive foods from his diet (see the list below), his gut healed well and his B12 level came back to normal. Initially we did use supplementation of B12 sublingual (under the tongue) but checked later and found that he was absorbing enough B12 from his diet alone now.
After three months on the diet change we re-checked his thyroid function and the level was dropping too low so he was taken off his medication by his doctor and all was well again.
Six years have passed since I first saw him. He hasn’t had any issues with his heart or thyroid since and his energy is back to normal.
Below is a list of common foods that cross-react with gluten, because they have a similar protein structure. Gluten is found in products made from wheat, barley, spelt and rye.
When a body is inflamed and irritated by gluten, it may think that these foods are also gluten and react to them just the same. For some people, this may only occur until the gut has healed from gluten, but for others, some of these foods may remain reactive:
- Dairy, i.e. milk and cheese (alpha-casein, beta-casein, casomorphin, butyrophilin, whey protein)