Can the Right Diet Help Prevent Heart Disease?

Healthy DietThe simple answer is yes. A proper diet is one of the best ways to reduce your risk for heart disease. But changing entrenched eating habits can be difficult, and it can help to have a deeper understanding of the roles various nutritional components play in the function of your heart and circulatory system.

Fats serve a number of essential roles within your body, such as supporting cell growth, providing energy, helping with nutrient absorption and assisting in the production of certain hormones. But not all fats are the same, and it’s important to choose the right kinds to include in your diet.

In general, saturated fats and trans fats increase the bad type of cholesterol (LDL) in your blood. These fats tend to be solid at room temperature, such as butter. Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), on the other hand, can help lower the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood. These types of fat tend to be liquid at room temperature, such as vegetable oil. LDL cholesterol can contribute to plaque build-up on the inside walls of your arteries (atherosclerosis), thereby reducing or blocking blood flow. In addition, all fats are high in calories and can therefore contribute to overweight and obesity, which put additional strain on your heart muscle. Both overweight/obesity and atherosclerosis increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Carbohydrates are a type of dietary nutrient that converts to glucose (sugar), which provides energy to cells throughout the body. The two basic types are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. In general, simple carbohydrates are less healthy because they convert quickly to glucose inside your body, resulting in blood sugar spikes that are associated with heart disease and diabetes, among other health conditions. Simple carbohydrates are found in things like fruit and milk, which contain naturally occurring sugars, but they also find their way into our diets as refined sugars that are added to processed foods.

Complex carbohydrates take longer for your body to convert to glucose, and therefore are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes. Because your body needs carbohydrates to function, choosing complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain cereals and breads, vegetables, and legumes, instead of simple ones is better for your heart health. However, in large quantities, complex carbohydrates can also cause blood sugar spikes, so it’s important to consume even complex carbohydrates in moderation.

Protein is a component of every cell in the body. It helps the body produce new cells and repair damaged ones, and it’s essential in the production of vital chemicals in the body such as hormones and enzymes. But too much protein can actually be unhealthy. This is primarily because much of the protein we eat is in the form of meat that’s high in saturated fat , which is associated with atherosclerosis and heart disease. Also, too much protein in the diet often means that we eat smaller amounts of other important nutrients. The good news is that there are plenty of protein sources that aren’t high in saturated fat, such as lean meats, low-fat dairy products, peas and beans.

Salt makes the body retain fluid. This, in turn, can lead to increased blood pressure and added burden on your heart muscle. One of the simplest ways to reduce your intake of sodium is to cut back on packaged and processed foods, which tend to be high in added salt.

It’s important to remember that maintaining a healthy diet doesn’t mean you have to compromise on taste. Just take a look at some of Emory’s delicious HeartWise℠ recipes.

About the Emory Women’s Heart Center

Emory Women’s Heart Center is a unique program dedicated to screening, preventing and treating heart disease in women. The Center, led by nationally renowned cardiologist Gina Lundberg, MD provides comprehensive cardiac risk assessment and screenings for patients at risk for heart disease as well as full range of treatment options for women already diagnosed with heart disease care.

About Susmita Parashar, MD, MPH, MS, FACC, FAHA

Susmita Parashar, MDSusmita Parashar, MD, MPH, MS, FACC, FAHA is a board-certified cardiologist at the Emory Heart & Vascular Center and an associate professor of medicine (cardiology) at Emory University School of Medicine. Prior to joining the faculty of the Division of Cardiology, Dr. Parashar was an assistant professor of medicine in Emory’s Division of General Medicine for eight years. She applies her experience as a board-certified internist in providing a holistic approach to patient care.

Dr. Parashar was awarded the American Heart Association (AHA) Trudy Bush Fellowship for Cardiovascular Research in Women’s Health, which recognizes outstanding work in the area of women’s health and cardiovascular disease, and the Emory Department of Medicine Early Career Faculty Research Award for Clinical Research.

Dr. Parashar completed her residency in internal medicine at the Medical College of Georgia and a cardiology fellowship at Emory University. She completed her master’s of public health and a master’s of science at Emory University in 2005.

A passionate clinician-researcher and educator, Dr. Parashar trains medical students, residents and cardiology fellows. In addition, she conducts clinical research. Dr. Parashar’s clinical and research focus is in preventive cardiology, with an emphasis on women and cardiovascular diseases. She has received several grants and awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the AHA to conduct research on women and heart disease and has authored or coauthored more than 60 peer-reviewed publications. Her work has been published in such prestigious journals as The New England Journal of Medicine, Archives of Internal Medicine and Circulation and highlighted by national media organizations such as CNN, CBS and NPR.

She believes in family-career balance and applies her experience as a wife and the mother of two young children to her work.

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  • Julie C.

    This is a great and informative blog post. A proper diet is a step in the right direction for so many health concerns, especially heart disease. Food that is good for you can still taste good too!