When it comes to heart disease, genetics contribute to some degree. But the truth is that many other factors are completely within your control. As the saying goes: Genetics load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. Things like food, exercise, and even environmental toxins can contribute to conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and, of course, heart disease.
I believe that the current way most doctors treat heart disease—using medication to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar—is misguided.
Instead, we need to ask why these and other problems occur in the first place. Spoiler alert: These are not medication deficiencies. Changing your lifestyle can often be a more powerful intervention to prevent heart disease than any medication.
For example, the EPIC study looked at how 23,000 people adhered to four simple behaviors: not smoking, exercising 3.5 hours a week, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. The researchers found that adhering to those four behaviors alone seemed to prevent 93 percent of cases of diabetes, 81 percent of cases of heart attacks, 50 percent of cases of strokes, and 36 percent of cases of all cancers.
Likewise, the INTERHEART study, published in the Lancet in 2004, followed 30,000 people in 52 countries. Researchers found that changing lifestyle could prevent at least 90 percent of all heart disease.
And other research suggests that lifestyle intervention can be more effective than almost any other traditional medical intervention to reduce cardiovascular disease, hypertension, heart failure, stroke, some cancers, diabesity, and deaths from all causes.
Plus, these modifications help you feel alive and healthy, without medication’s side effects.
Occasionally, I will use medications if I feel a patient shows a strong genetic predisposition for heart disease or if significant heart disease already exists. Under those circumstances, I carefully weigh a medication’s risks and benefits.
Still, most patients can achieve benefits through lifestyle changes. In fact, I’ve had patients lower their cholesterol (sometimes over 100 points) simply by incorporating positive dietary and lifestyle changes. Simply put, preventive medicine becomes the best form of medicine.
Here are the seven simple dietary modifications I recommend for preventing or reversing heart disease:
1. Eat a colorful, plant-based diet.
Increase your intake of healthy, whole foods rich in nutrients and phytonutrients (plant molecules). That means you should aim for at least eight to ten servings of colorful fruits and vegetables a day loaded with disease-fighting vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory molecules.
2. Steady your blood sugar.
Studies show blood sugar imbalances can contribute to heart disease. Stabilize your blood sugar with protein, healthy fat, and healthy carbohydrates at every meal. Never eat carbohydrates alone, and avoid processed sugars and carbohydrates.
3. Increase your fiber.
I recommend working your way up to 50 grams of fiber per day. High-fiber foods include beans, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lower-sugar fruits like berries. If that becomes a challenge, you can consider adding in a fiber supplement.
4. Avoid processed, junk foods.
That includes sodas, juices, and diet drinks, which adversely affect sugar and lipid metabolism. Research shows liquid-sugar calories are among the biggest contributors to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. And don’t be fooled into thinking that 100 percent fruit juice is healthy—juices are essentially pure, liquid sugar because processing strips away the fruit’s fiber.
5. Increase omega-3 fatty acids.
Eat anti-inflammatory foods like cold-water fish including salmon, sardines, and herring, as well as flaxseeds and even seaweed. Healthy fat actually benefits your heart by improving your overall cholesterol profile. I discuss more about how healthy fat can help you achieve and maintain good health in my new book, Eat Fat, Get Thin.
6. Eliminate all hydrogenated fat.
Hydrogenated fat lurks in margarine, shortening, processed oils, and many baked goods and processed foods like cookies and crackers. Use healthy oils instead like coconut oil (rich in medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs); extra-virgin, organic, cold-pressed olive oil; organic sesame oil; and other nut oils.
7. Avoid or reduce alcohol intake.
Alcohol can raise triglycerides, contribute to fatty liver, and create sugar imbalances. Too much alcohol also seems to raise inflammation, which is associated with heart disease and many other chronic diseases.