Lowering Your Risk with Nutrition
This article is primarily about nutrition and the dietary changes which can (and should) be made if you are at high risk for CVD or currently have CVD. I’m not going to spend much time on the lifestyle and disease factors which also increase risk. That being said, if you currently smoke, quitting will dramatically lower your risk, and if you don’t currently exercise, then starting an exercise routine will be extremely helpful. There is no safe amount you can smoke, and nearly any level of physical activity will be useful, though getting the recommended 2.5 hours/week (or more) is optimal. If you have diabetes, the best thing you can do is work with your doctor to control your blood glucose levels—this won’t eliminate risk, but it will lower it.
High blood cholesterol levels and high blood pressure both remain major risk factors, and no recent science has changed this. All dietary interventions primarily focus on lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, which typically includes a diet high in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and legumes, low in saturated fats (particularly from animal sources), and high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
Despite the recent popularity of high-fat, low-carb diets, research suggests that whatever other benefits they may have, they are associated with an increased risk of CVD. The only exception to this is when the high-fat, low-carb diet in question is low in animal products and high in vegetables. Certainly this is possible, but it’s definitely not the high-fat, low-carb diet most people follow (think Paleo, with its encouragement to eat plenty of meat). Even when a high-fat, low-carb diet leads to weight loss, which normally reduces CVD risk, the risk post-weight loss is still higher than if the weight loss had occurred on a diet incorporating normal amounts of carbohydrates and fat (40 – 60% carbs, 20 – 30% fat).
Thankfully, most of the dietary interventions to lower blood pressure and cholesterol overlap. Before we wrap everything into a neat bundle, though, let’s examine the important dietary changes one at a time so we understand how they might help.