February 20, 2019
October 30, 2018 by Dr. Varner in Heart Disease
Coronary Artery Disease is a killer. In fact, it’s the third biggest killer in the world, claiming 600,000 lives each year in the US alone.
But luckily, this is not a disease that attacks purely by chance. The development of CAD has a lot to do with your lifestyle, so by taking steps to improve your habits you can vastly reduce your chances of getting the disease.
It’s pretty much common knowledge that you shouldn’t smoke or drink too much in order to have a healthy heart. And a lot of people are even aware that your diet makes up a huge part of your risk to CAD.
But, what many people still don’t understand is that it’s not just being overweight that can increase your risk, but even what’s in your food can impact your likelihood of developing CAD.
In this article, I’ll go over how your diet affects CAD and three of the best diets for reducing your chances of developing the disease. Read on to learn more.
How Does Diet Affect Coronary Artery Disease?
In order to understand how diet can affect your chances of CAD, it is important to first understand how CAD develops and how food impacts this process.
Over time, cholesterol plaque can build up in your arteries, which forces your blood to squeeze through a smaller and smaller tube. With time, this can eventually block your blood supply.
As the immune system responds to this, it makes the problem worse, and these plaques grow and sometimes become unstable.
As a result, when it comes to diet, the two main goals are to reduce the initial build-up of bad cholesterol and then to reduce foods that cause inflammation, which can aggravate the situation.
Three very good diets targeted at reducing bad cholesterol and inflammation include the Ornish Diet, the Keto Diet, and the Paleo Diet.
Each of these diets has some important overlaps between them. In particular, each has a strong focus on cutting out processed foods, which are hands down the biggest contributors to plaque build up in your arteries and systemic inflammation. However, there are some key differences between them, which I will outline below.
The Ornish Diet: Shunning Fats For a Healthy Heart
First, we have the Ornish Diet, which has been scientifically proven to reverse CAD (something many people previously thought to be impossible), with participants seeing their “bad” cholesterol levels reduced by an average of 40% in clinical trials.
The main focus in this diet is to severely cut out fats of all kinds, with the goal of having no more than 10% of your calories come from fats. This includes eliminating not only meats, but also oils, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
Under this diet, you are encouraged to eat as many whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables you need to be full. This means trading in processed carbs like white bread and pasta for things like brown bread and quinoa. And of course, no processed snacks like candy, potato chips, and soda.
Ultimately this results in a de facto vegetarian diet, but with an added emphasis on eliminating fat. Alongside food choices, practitioners also recommend more holistic lifestyle choices like meditation, deep breathing and spending time with friends and family. This helps to combat things like stress and depression which can also contribute to developing CAD.
While this diet goes a long way to help people cut out processed foods like candy, potato chips, and sodas, its extreme aversion to all fats has some major shortcomings, which I will elaborate on below.
The Paleo Diet: Embracing Fats for a Healthy Heart
Though fat may have once been the villain of every mainstream diet, in recent years, the scientific community has largely moved on from being afraid of fat. Similarly, the idea that all types of cholesterol directly cause heart disease is also being challenged.
Not all fats are the same. For example, omega-3 fatty acids found in flaxseed oil, salmon and beef from grass-fed cows are anti-inflammatory and have significant health benefits. Whereas, omega-6 fatty acids found in a lot of corn-fed beef is inflammatory and bad for you.
One diet that incorporates both the best of Ornish diet and the latest scientific knowledge is one called the Paleo diet. This premise of this diet is to mimic how people supposedly ate as hunters and gathers.
Like the Ornish diet, it has a strong emphasis on cutting out all processed foods and eating as many fruits and vegetables as one can. The main difference, however, is trading whole grains for good fats—including grass-fed meats, oils, and nuts.
Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. It all depends on what kinds of fat you consume. Because in fact, eating good omega-3 fatty acids have even been found to raise HDL (good cholesterol) levels, which is very important for heart health.
The Ketogenic Diet: A 1-2 Punch Against Coronary Artery Disease
Similar to the Paleo diet, the Ketogenic diet also focuses on eliminating all processed foods and encourages you to eat fat. Likewise making the important distinction between good fats and bad fats.
This diet, however, takes CAD prevention to the next level by targeting another key trigger for inflammation: carbohydrates.
In the keto diet, the goal is to eliminate carbs and sugar, which enables your body to switch from burning glucose to burning fat and ketones. To follow this, you must reduce your carb intake to under 50g a day, winding it down over time. Instead, all your calories should come from good fats, protein and vegetables.
The most difficult part of this diet for most people is that you have to dramatically reduce even your fruit intake. Even though fruit sugars are supposedly “good sugars”, consuming high amounts keeps your body running on glucose, and prevents it from using your fat stores.
There’s a lot of debate about the merits of a ketogenic diet, but the real value of this diet has to be understood in the way it addresses the pathophysiology of most CAD in Americans. Due to the high quantities of processed carbohydrates in the standard American diet, many (perhaps most!) Americans have a severely deranged metabolism. By radically eliminating carbohydrates, we’re able to trigger a rapid metabolic change that rolls back the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Many of my patients who have tried radically low fat/vegetarian diets find themselves unable to adhere–fat is, after all, very satiating. However, they find that once they’ve entered a state of ketosis, they feel well and their hunger is under control. This is a diet they can stick to.
There are a number of important lifestyle changes that everyone should be making to reduce their risk of Coronary Artery Disease. At the most basic, the essential things you should do are to quit smoking, reduce alcohol consumption, engage in regular exercise, and improve your diet
From the diets that we covered, the key takeaway is that you need to cut out all the bad fats and refined carbs in the standard American diet, which wreak havoc on your heart. Your health is in your hands, and taking steps to improve your daily habits is one of the best things you can do for your heart and your whole body too.