Heart disease remains the number one killer in the United States, despite the decades of nutritional advice to eat low-fat. The mainstream message has been clear: we are eating too much saturated fat and cholesterol, and those particles are entering our bloodstreams, clogging up our arteries and causing heart attacks.
Reduce fat intake, avoid animal products, eat whole grains – these have all been the suggestions to help curb the increase in heart disease. What happens when someone follows the advice, but blood tests still come back indicating high risk? Well, you are either not doing the low-fat diet right or you are genetically predisposed to this problem. Either way, pharmaceuticals are in order, often in the form of cholesterol-lowering statins.
All this intervention, but heart disease remains the head of the early-death mafia. Either people are just not following their protocols, or the protocols are dead wrong. Since death is generally a motivating factor, the latter option seems more likely. Ample research – both recent and much older – is supportive of that conclusion.
So if reducing fat is not the answer, what is? First, let’s look at the real issue: heart disease is not a fat problem, it is an inflammation problem. Inflammation is a natural response to all kinds of injuries, and typically serves to aid in healing. Chronic inflammation, due to chronic insults, is not so beneficial. When inflammation is present in arteries over long periods of time, weaknesses in those arteries begin to form. This is a serious emergency as far as health and even survival is concerned. Weak patches within a pressured system lead to blowouts, which in this case could be a deadly hemorrhage.
To mitigate this risk, the immune system takes action, forming a patch over the weak spot to strengthen it. The patch is made up of many body materials, including collagen, white blood cells, calcium and some cholesterol, along with unsaturated fats. This patch is referred to as plaque, and is meant to just be a temporary fix. If the cause of the damage is not removed, the plaque will grow as more materials are added. Over time it will become unstable and can break apart, which can result in a heart attack or stroke.
Mainstream medicine seems to focus on the plaque as the problem, hence the directive to reduce fat in the diet. As it turn out, fats are more part of the solution which prevent damaged arteries from bursting. So where is all this inflammation coming from? The answer to that is the real cause heart disease: toxins in the diet and the environment.
Toxins in the diet include dyes, preservatives, pesticides and other additives, but of primary concern are the processed sugars and industrial vegetable oils.
Sugar is a naturally found substance, but it is rarely eaten in its natural state. Sugars in fruit, and even whole sugar cane, have the benefit of arriving in a neat package complete with fiber, vitamins and minerals needed to digest the sugar without issue. When sugars have been refined, they must strip the body of its nutrient reserves in order to be digested. In addition, refined sugar raises blood sugar, which then requires insulin output to normalize. Insulin is one of the most pro-inflammatory hormones in the body. Like plaque, it is only meant to be a short term fix, not a long term solution.
Industrial vegetable oils may be the worst offenders. Vegetable oils have an extremely delicate molecular structure that is easily damaged by heat and light. Most of the oils are processed with high heat, rendering then nutritionally useless and rancid. The vegetable oils present in packed foods have been baked or fried, to the same effect.
Toxins in the environment are far too numerous to list and far too pervasive to eliminate, but there are a great many that are within an individual’s control to remove. Chemicals present in personal care items, cleaning products and detergents can enter the body through the lungs or the skin to begin to cause their damage. Both over-the-counter and prescription drugs have long term damaging effects. Smoking, second hand smoke, air pollution, and chemicals added to water supplies all have toxic effects on the arteries once they are introduced to the body.
Other factors with toxic effects on the body and arteries include vitamin and mineral deficiencies, lack of exposure to sunlight, and a sedentary lifestyle with a lack of exercise.
An important first step is to avoid packaged foods. Cereals, chips, crackers, bars, and almost anything in a box or bag that is shelf-stable should never make up a significant part of anyone’s diet, if consumed at all. Replacing these with fresh fruits and vegetables or nuts and seeds will go a long way to prevent chronic disease and inflammation. Not only do the processed foods contain preservatives and stabilizers, but they are typically rife with processed sugars and fats.
Filling your plate with whole, organic plant and animal foods will stop the perpetuation of inflammation and actually heal the damage. If eating organic seem financially restrictive, know where to prioritize. Focusing on organic and pastured animal foods gets you the most bang for your buck. Toxins, antibiotics and hormones collect and accumulate in animal fats, so it is best to avoid conventional feedlot grown animal foods.
When choosing fats, avoid all oils that come in clear bottles. No corn, soy, canola or vegetable blends are suitable for human consumption. Cold pressed virgin avocado and olive oils should all be in dark bottles and are best kept in the fridge. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, making it much more stable and less likely to become rancid. Animal fats are similar. You are better off with butter, lard, or tallow in your cooking, since these are not at all the cause of heart disease, and are stable at higher heat.
Making the switch to safer body and home care products is also an important step. The internet is full of recipes for making your own products, from deodorant to laundry detergent, but plenty of companies make good products that are ready to use. There is an enormous range of nutritional, herbal, and lifestyle changes that can be made to replace many pharmaceuticals. Quitting smoking and using air and water filters at home are additional efforts that can be made to improve health outcomes and reduce the risk of heart disease.
The root cause of heart disease is not the consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol, but an inflammatory response to a processed, man-made diet, and exposure to a toxic, man-made environment. Humans were never meant to be exposed to either. Doing your best to take as many small steps towards a natural, wholesome lifestyle is your best bet against heart disease.
Sara Kennedy is a special education teacher in the Anchorage School District and a certified Nutritional Therapy Consultant. She likes to swim, bike and run around Alaska, and camp and fish with her family.