Why You Should Eat For Your Heart No Matter How Young You Are

General practice physician By Rupy Aujla, M.D.
General practice physician
Rupy Aujla, M.D., is a UK-based physician specialized in General Practice and Emergency Medicine. A firm believer in the power of food and lifestyle change as medicine, Rupy is also the creator of The Doctor's Kitchen, a website that creates delicious recipes and brings attention to the clinical research behind his ingredients.
Why You Should Eat For Your Heart No Matter How Young You Are
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If you're tempted to skip over this story because you're in your mid-20s or early 30s and you believe heart disease is only something of concern in later life, think carefully about scrolling past these pages. Heart disease isn't something that suddenly becomes relevant as soon as we reach a certain age threshold. We build the foundations for a healthy or unhealthy heart in our childhood, and we are starting to see the early signs of atherosclerosis (narrowed, inflamed arteries) in those as young as teenagers. But rather than scaring you into booking a CT angiogram to determine the state of your vital organ, I want to show you how much control you have using your fork.

Rather than trying to just reverse heart disease, I want to focus on the habits that will prevent the life-changing event of a heart attack, which happens to over 700,000 American citizens per year. Yes, there is evidence to suggest that we can drastically improve post-heart-attack symptoms with intense lifestyle changes, but the better and more effective aspiration is to prevent that stage in the first place.


If you happen to have a family history of heart disease, you may be thinking that your genes are your destiny, and there isn't much you can do about your "dirty DNA." On the contrary: Studies have shown that we are more in control of our heart disease risk than previously thought. Our genetic blueprint is inherited from our parents; this information is stored in every cell of your body, and it is unchangeable. However, we can change the output of our genes by changing what we put into our system. Once we begin to understand and believe in the power of environmental influences on the very foundations of our existence, it becomes clear why diet is one of the most technologically advanced treatments we have in our armory against disease. 

When you consume food, it "speaks" to your DNA, and this communication can either lead to an overall positive or negative outcome. By introducing colorful foods, nutrient-dense ingredients, and good-quality fats, we not only provide micronutrients and proteins for heart function, but we are also changing the messages transmitted via our DNA. This area of research gives us further mechanistic information about why particular diets like the Mediterranean diet are so cardio-protective, and I'm sure biomedical informatics will help tackle the complexity of this field. 


Stop the stress.

Beyond the nutrients necessary for contracting the muscular walls of our heart, this organ is vulnerable to "oxidative stress." High levels of inflammation have been shown in many animal and human models to be detrimental to the walls of arteries. Oxidative stress can be created by high blood pressure, smoking, as well as high-sugar diets that can lead to the creation of "advanced glycemic end products" (AGEs). 

By ensuring your lifestyle reduces inflammation, limiting foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates (like white rice, bread, pasta, cookies, and cakes), you can prevent unnecessary oxidative stress and fuel your body's natural inflammation-balancing mechanisms. A Mediterranean-style diet has been shown to reduce oxidative stress, lower blood pressure, and improve the health of blood vessels. In addition, a diet high in green vegetables such as broccoli, parsley, and sprouts not only contains oxidant scavengers like vitamin C and heart-stabilizing minerals like magnesium but phytochemicals including sulfurophane, indole-3-carbinol, and quercetin that are known to be potent anti-inflammatory ingredients.

Balanced fats.

Despite years of being told fat should be stripped out of our diets, sources of good-quality fat such as nuts, seeds, and extra-virgin olive oil feature heavily in Mediterranean diets, which are heart-healthy. Whole sources of fat such as pecans, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and minimally processed extra-virgin olive oil are fantastic additions to your diet from a heart-health perspective. Not only do they contain key minerals like selenium and magnesium, but they provide antioxidants such as vitamin E, which can protect the heart from oxidative stress.

The mechanism by which different fats affect our health is more complicated than simply turning inflammation on and off. Fatty acids modify the blood's ability to clot and even influence gene expression of cells in our vessels. To put it simply, it's all about ratio, but rather than suggesting we all diligently calculate our omega-3 to omega-6 percentages, my advice would be to concentrate your fat sources on whole foods such as nuts and seeds. 

Here are some of the foods I regularly recommend to patients interested in heart-healthy meals:

1. A rainbow of colors

There is a significant body of clinical data and large studies to demonstrate that antioxidant-rich diets reduce blood pressure and cardiovascular risk, and as a general rule of thumb, colors mean antioxidants. Look for a rainbow of colors in your diet, and you're likely to be including a plethora of micronutrients that will positively affect your heart. I like to include red and purple foods such as berries, beets, red cabbage, and grapes. 


2. Calcium and potassium  

These minerals are essential for vascular health. You'll find calcium in ingredients such as chickpeas, puy lentils, and sesame seeds, and both potassium and magnesium are abundant in dark greens such as cavolo nero, spring greens, and Swiss chard. 

3. Fiber

As well as the minerals contained within beans, legumes, and pulses, these foods offer a variety of fiber sources. In addition to pulses and legumes, chicory, garlic, onion, and leeks are fantastic fiber sources that will encourage a healthy microbiota.


4. Good-quality fats

The fats to focus on are those from whole plant sources. These include walnuts, pistachios, almonds, oily fish, cold-pressed virgin oils (like avocado, rapeseed, and olive), and seeds.

Trust me on this one: Your heart will thank you for focusing on plentiful whole, largely plant-based fats and enjoying fats from animal products like meat and dairy on occasion.

Excerpted from Eat To Beat Illness by Rupy Aujla, M.D., copyright © 2019. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne/HarperCollins.

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