Following a heart healthy diet and lifestyle can significantly modify several of the known risk factors of cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure (hypertension), hyperlipidemia (elevated cholesterol and/or triglycerides), metabolic syndrome and obesity. Over time, the presence of these conditions increases a person’s risk of developing coronary artery disease, which in some cases can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Understanding how different foods and nutrients affect these risk factors is a very important component of health maintenance and disease prevention.
Food affects the body in many ways beyond satisfying hunger and providing energy. Limiting the consumption of certain foods and eating more of others can offer long-term cardiovascular benefits. Heart healthy eating is characterized by a diet that contains adequate fruits and vegetables, whole grains or fiber and omega 3 fatty acids, has no trans-fats, and is low in total and saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, processed foods and refined carbohydrates.Scientific research has demonstrated that certain nutrients found in the foods we eat may positively or negatively impact cardiovascular risk factors. For example, research shows that reducing the intake of saturated fat, trans fat, and dietary cholesterol significantly reduces low -density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and total cholesterol levels (1). Additional studies have found that consuming adequate dietary fiber, with the inclusion of soluble fiber, can also lower LDL-cholesterol. Reducing the proportion of carbohydrates in the diet, replacing saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, and eliminating alcohol has been shown to lower triglyceride levels (2). For people who are overweight or obese, weight loss of 7-10% of body weight effectively lowers triglyceride levels as well as blood pressure (2, 3). Furthermore, substantial evidence indicates that reducing dietary sodium (salt) intake and limiting alcohol consumption can help to lower and control blood pressure levels (3). However, due to the complexity of cardiovascular disease and the variability among individuals, putting these guidelines into practice may seem daunting.
For many people, adopting healthy eating habits may be one of several components of preventing or managing cardiovascular disease. Physical activity and in some cases medication may also support a healthy lifestyle. A Dietitian can provide personalized education and medical nutrition therapy for people with cardiovascular risk factors or coronary artery disease. Dietitians are equipped to provide evidence-based guidance for effective weight loss and can provide their clients with customized meal plans. In addition, a Dietitian can help you to understand the different types of dietary fats and teach you how to properly read nutrition facts labels. These skills are necessary to put the above guidelines into practice in everyday living.
Kristin Hirahatake is a registered dietitian. Kristin is passionate about translating scientific research findings into practical applications that people can directly implement. She continues to maintain an active role in the field of nutrition research by co-authoring peer-reviewed journal articles. Her most rewarding experiences as a dietitian have been to see positive changes and improvements in the lives of her clients.
1. Carson JAS, Grundy SM, et al. Medical nutrition therapy for the prevention and management of coronary heart disease. In: Carson JAS, Burke F, Hark L, eds. Cardiovascular Nutrition: Disease Prevention and Management. Chicago, IL: American Dietetic Association; 2004:109-148.
2. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutrition Care Manual: Cardiac – TLC Nutrition Therapy. Retrieved October 15, 2013, http://nutritioncaremanual.org/.
3. JNC 7 Complete Report: The Science Behind the New Guidelines. The Seventh Report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure – Complete Report. NHLBI 2004.