The Heartbreaker - Inflammation

In my blog titled, “Cholesterol: Wrongful Conviction?” I told you that inflammation was the real culprit behind heart disease. In fact, in May 2018 in the Journal Nutrients there was an article titled, “Inflammation, not Cholesterol, Is a Cause of Chronic Disease” and notes that the “principles of the Mediterranean diet along with relevant data linked to the examples of people living in the five blue zones demonstrate that the key to longevity and the prevention of chronic disease development is not the reduction of dietary or serum cholesterol, but the control of systemic inflammation.” Wow, to live longer and prevent chronic disease we shouldn’t worry about reducing our serum cholesterol, but rather systemic inflammation!

How does inflammation lead to a heart attack? When you get a cut, it bleeds and there is localized swelling and scab forms – our bodies natural band-aid that protects and helps the wound heal. However, sometimes wound healing isn’t so simple and abscess/ infections can occur. Thus, more inflammation occurs as more cells rush to the site to help. A similar phenomenon occurs inside our blood vessels. Whereas, the lining (endothelium) can suffer microscopic cuts and so (LDL) cholesterol acts as a natural band-aid that fills and patches the wound. This patch can obstruct and limit blood flow or it can develop an abscess of sorts and rupture releasing blood clots and/or debris that can cause a stroke or heart attack. The best way to prevent this is to avoid getting cuts in your vessel walls in the first place, which means maintaining a healthy blood pressure, not smoking, managing or reverse diabetes, reducing stress, and eating a Mediterranean diet.

Why a Mediterranean diet? Well, there is heaps (HEAPS!) of scientific data on the Mediterranean diet (Med-diet) and its ability to reduce one’s risk of heart disease (among numerous other diseases). Moreover, in January 2019, U.S. News evaluated 41 of the most popular diets and identified the Mediterranean diet as #1 best overall diet. As far as heart disease goes, the main benefit of the Med-diet is on the improvement of endothelial (blood vessel lining) function, its ability to decrease inflammation and inflammation-related mediators, improve oxidative stress, lower concentrations of oxidized LDL, and help platelets from clumping together and forming clots.

The core foods that make up the Med-diet are: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, herbs, and olive oil, with fish and seafood (e.g. tuna, salmon, sardines, mussels, oysters, shrimp) added in a couple times a week. In small amounts, yogurt, cheese, poultry, and eggs are eaten regularly. Whereas, red meat and/or sweets are sometimes eaten, but usually reserved for special occasions. Basically, the Med-diet is primarily a plant-based diet with fish/seafood, poultry, eggs, cheese/yogurt being a compliment to it – a real food diet that’s budget friendly! As you may have noted, the more expensive products are eaten less or in smaller quantities, whereas the more economical groceries are eaten in larger quantities, yet no food group is excluded not even red wine. Talk about a flexitarian diet! Not surprising, since scientists have purported that if a meal of fish, veggies, garlic, fruit, almonds, dark chocolate and red wine was eaten every day it would reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 75%! Which is something no drug can do – let food be thy medicine.

I also can’t help but note that the make-up of the Med-diet contains foods known to improve your gut flora as well, which directly impacts our overall health. For instance, the core of the med-diet contains high fiber foods, which feed the healthy bacteria that in turn improve immune function, reduce inflammation and chronic disease, and even help regulate mood! Prebiotics feed healthy bacteria and include foods such as: Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, raw dandelion greens, leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus, whole wheat, spinach, beans, bananas, and oats to name a few. Whereas, probiotics are live bacteria or yeasts found in fermented foods that, when consumed, take up residence in the gut and improve health, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso to name a few. Conversely, red meat, high-fat dairy products, and fried foods all reduce the growth of healthy bacteria and enhance the growth of “bad” bacteria linked to chronic disease.

Okay, you’re convinced and are ready to give up your fast food way of life – now what? You could buy a Mediterranean cook book, hit the grocery store and get started whipping up meals. Not for you? Okay, try having all the ingredients shipped to you along with step-by-step recipe card (yes with pictures) for a Med-diet meal so all you have to do is the assemble and cook it up. There are numerous companies that do this and Sun Basket is one that has a Mediterranean plan. I haven’t personally tried Sun Basket, but have tried similar ones and our family really enjoyed the variety, quality and convince it afforded. Maybe, you’re not in a place that lends itself to cooking, even if the prep work is done, or simply the idea of cooking after a long day of work wouldn’t be sustainable. Consider ordering meals that are already prepared and all you have to do is heat and eat. Yep, such services exist. I’ve identified (but haven’t tried) Macro Mediterranean Holistic Nutrition, which sends you fresh or heat-n-serve med-meals. Perhaps some combination of the above or something else entirely works for you. Personally, I like to do the majority of my food prep on Sundays, but since I don’t like to cook fish ahead of time, I often lean on FishPeople or Love the Wild seafood kits, which can be cooked up in about 30 minutes from a frozen state. My favorite FishPeople kit is the lemon and herb panko wild Alaskan salmon kit. Whereas, my favorite Love the Wild kit is currently the striped bass with roasted red pepper and almond sauce. Ironically, the Love the Wild kits come with a heart shaped parchment paper and heart shaped sauce packets.

So, don’t let inflammation break your heart! Show yourself some love by powering your heart with nutritious whole foods that keeps inflammation at bay. That way you can go on loving yourself and others wholeheartedly!

Coaching Corner

  • How might you incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet?

  • Do you consume fish/seafood a couple times a week?

  • Why is heart health important to you?