Right up there with sacred subjects like religion and politics is the subject of diet. Maybe it is because food is politicized and some follow nutrition like a religion. You see, I get it, we all like our food and no one wants to be told what they are eating is unhealthy. In this final post of this series on heart health, I may end up stepping on a few toes, though not intentionally. My hope is that this information will arouse curiosity, stir conversation, and inspire further research, which can motivate positive change.
Some lifestyle changes are easier than others are—personally, I think dietary changes are especially tough because unhealthy choices are more readily available than healthy ones. What is most frustrating to me about this subject is the misinformation, which has been circulated through government guidelines, doctors, reputable clinics, and well-meaning associations. Frustrating because we follow these trusted sources believing we are doing the right thing for our health.
If you Google search heart healthy diet, you will not be surprised by the information you find. You have probably seen it all before in one magazine or another or heard it from your own doctor. Low fat, low cholesterol, high fiber, reduced sodium, is the common mantra, but has it really been proven or simply agreed upon?
According to an article in Men’s Health by Nina Teicholz in 2007, there was not clear consensus for the low-fat hypothesis in preventing heart disease.
Take, for example, a 2004 Harvard University study of older women with heart disease. Researchers found that the more saturated fat these women consumed, the less likely it was their condition would worsen. Lead study author Dariush Mozaffarian, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Harvard’s school of public health, recalls that before the paper was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, he encountered formidable politics from other journals.
“In the nutrition field, it’s very difficult to get something published that goes against established dogma,” says Mozaffarian. “The dogma says that saturated fat is harmful, but that is not based, to me, on unequivocal evidence.” Mozaffarian says he believes it’s critical that scientists remain open minded. “Our finding was surprising to us. And when there’s a discovery that goes against what’s established, it shouldn’t be suppressed but rather disseminated and explored as much as possible.” Read more at Men’s Health.
If you are wondering if scientists or doctors deal with this anywhere else in the world, in the UK, the Government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is on the same anti-fat bandwagon. In this article, Dr. John Briffa points out there is no evidence connecting saturated fat to heart disease.
Over the last 50-odd years, there have been more than two-dozen studies that have analyzed the relationship between saturated fat and risk of heart disease [1-26]. All but four of these studies [9,11,19,25] found no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease. And in one study, higher intakes of saturated fat in the diet were found to be associated with reduced narrowing of the arteries supplying blood to the head (the carotid arteries) over time .
The largest analysis to date of the relationship between lifestyle factors and risk of heart attack was published in the Lancet medical journal in 2004 . This study analyzed a range of risk factors and heart attack risk in some 12,000 heart attack victims and 14,000 healthy individuals from 52 countries around the World. The researchers involved in this study identified several factors, including smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, a low intake of fruits and vegetables, and low levels of physical activity that appeared to account for 90 and 94 per cent of heart attacks in men and women respectively. Curiously, this review makes no mention of animal fat, or even dietary fat in general, as being an important risk factor for heart attack.
Taken as a whole, the scientific evidence simply does not support the notion that saturated fat is bad for the heart.
There are numerous examples, yet recommendations go unchanged. This is the kind of thing which motivated us to dig deeper and navigate the diet maze for ourselves. In addition, as I mentioned in Restoring Heart Health, it was inflammation, not cholesterol we were targeting, so we set out to identify and reduce those foods. Regular blood tests helped confirm our progress and that we were on the right track. This is where we concentrated our efforts:
Fats are a vital part of our diet, some are even essential. The way in which fats are extracted, stored, and utilized makes a great difference as to how healthful they are to consume. Anything with trans-fats like shortening, margarine, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils of any kind should be strictly avoided. There is a great chart at Real Food Digest to use as a guide to healthy fats and oils. We primarily use butter, ghee, extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, and *flax seed oil (*only fresh, never heated).
Notes: Fish oils are a wonderful source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, however, fish can contain harmful levels of mercury, so be careful about the source.
Eliminating refined sugar in our diet was a crucial step in improving health and vitality. America’s addiction to sugar and sugar substitutes is evident in the sheer number of products developed to indulge our habit. High fructose corn syrup has taken the spotlight, but whether it is fructose, sucralose (artificial sweetener), glucose, or sucrose, the negative effects of sweeteners on our health should be taken seriously. We’re not even talking about dessert here, when you read food labels closely it is stunning the number of products in which you will find sugar and its derivatives. Depending on the amount of processed foods you eat, you could be consuming sugar all day long while thinking you are avoiding it because you didn’t have dessert.
I know, this one is really tough! Sugar is a hard habit to break, but arguably a significant factor in causing a number of modern diseases. Believe me this really cramps my style too, but not nearly as much as seeing my husband in a hospital bed. I remember telling friends, “Life is too short to not have dessert“. They agreed, who wouldn’t? (We like it when friends validate our denial.) Well, I have adjusted that mantra. Life is too short not to have dessert; it will likely be shorter if we do. Don’t get me wrong, we will have a treat on our birthday and enjoy special holiday traditions, but it is rare. Unrefined honey, palm coconut sugar, stevia, or succanat (unrefined cane sugar) are better choices, yet still important to limit.
This is an excellent video describing the link between blood sugar (spikes from sugar and grains) and various diseases:
Refined grains are another source of inflammation. Grains can be part of a healthy diet if there is care taken to reduce the phytic acid by sprouting or soaking grain in an acid base and limiting consumption. For some folks, this one is harder to give up than sugar! Actually, I am one of those people, so my love for bread drove me to learn how to work with sprouted grain flour so we could enjoy it occasionally. Even though we eat sprouted grain products, it is still the minor part of our diet overall.
Another excellent video about blood sugar and the effects of carbohydrates:
Avoid processed and refined foods i.e. convenience foods. Refined flour and sugar are a double whammy to the immune system. The more processed or refined a food product is the less nutritional value it will retain. One way to significantly reduce the amount of processed foods or refined food in our diet is to primarily shop the perimeter of the grocery store, dairy, meat, and produce (skip the bakery, it is full of refined foods). Organic, grass-fed, humanely raised animals are an ideal source for meat. We look for local resources committed to products without growth hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, nitrites, or additives whenever possible.
Mom was right, eat your vegetables. When you reduce or remove breads and grains as a dinnertime staple, vegetables can fill the gap. One of the reasons vegetables can be less than desirable is due to the influence of the low-fat, low-sodium brigade. Steamed vegetables are okay, but vegetables sautéed with butter or coconut oil not only taste better, but also are more satiating and satisfying. Even if steaming is more convenient, finish with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil before serving. Use care to not overcook vegetables, serving them crisp-tender to retain a palatable texture. Try to add vegetables to every meal—morning eggs (yes, we eat eggs almost every day), lunchtime salads, and double up at dinnertime.
Diligence in diet and exercise proved true for us. In just a few months, cholesterol, inflammation, homocysteine dropped and so did the numbers on the scale (he shed 25 lbs), which he has maintained for more than a year. The recipes here on Savoring Today represent the foods we eat on a regular basis (most of the photos are my husband’s dinner plate). You will find dessert recipes with refined sugar or flour, as we do still enjoy treats on special occasions. If you have questions about anything you find on the site, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Making a number of dietary changes all at once can be overwhelming. Unless you are already facing a health crisis, plan to make necessary changes one-step at a time. Start with healthy fats and work your way down the list making changes every 2-4 weeks. Get a check-up including blood tests so you have a starting place from which to measure progress. Do your own research—when you know the why behind the changes you are making, they are more likely to last.
Additional reading and resources for nutrition and health:
The Maker’s Diet by Jordan Rubin
Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
Food Smart by Cheryl Townsley
Dr. Mercola’s Natural Health News
Whole Health Source
The Healthy Home Economist
The Nourishing Gourmet
Real Food Forager
Note: Every individual is different and must seek medical advice from one’s own physician to determine the best course of action when recovering from a heart attack. The information on this blog is based on personal research and experience and is not intended to diagnose or prescribe for anyone else. I do hope by sharing what we have learned will in some way help or encourage others.