Knowledge is power: 8 key terms to better understand heart health
There’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of heart disease before. It is the number 1 cause of death for both men and women in the United States , and according to the CDC, this has been the case for upwards of 80 years now after all (National Vital Statistics Reports, 2019)¹. But take a second to think about it, do you really know what it is? Is it a heart attack? heart failure? Are those the same things? Or is one of them heart disease, and the other cardiovascular disease? Cardiac arrest? Cholesterol might have something to do with it, or was that blood pressure? WELP!
Truth be told, heart disease, otherwise known as cardiovascular disease, refers to a host of conditions that affect your heart.
Because heart disease, which according to the CDC is responsible for about 647,000 deaths in the United States every year, is not just one type of affliction, it can be confusing—and that can make taking action to prevent it much more difficult. Fortunately, knowledge is power, and lesson #1 here: a good portion of the conditions that fall under the heart disease umbrella can actually be prevented or treated by being healthier. Now, one of the largest things you can do to live healthier is to improve your diet, but where to begin with that? Right back to knowledge. In order to arm you with the knowledge you need to eat better and live healthier, we’re breaking down some of the confusing terminology that comes up in the heart disease conversation for you. Here’s 8 terms to know to help you better understand how you can reduce your risk for heart disease via what you eat:
ATHEROSCLEROSIS – Atherosclerosis is the buildup of plaque on the artery walls that can constrict blood flow and lead to heart attacks. It usually leads to Coronary Artery Disease (the narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries), which according to the CDC is the most common type of heart disease. High levels of cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis, which is why people so commonly associate high cholesterol with heart health.
CHOLESTEROL – Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that the body makes as part of it’s normal functioning. The body makes cholesterol in the liver and uses it for various body functions including the production of hormones, bile acid and vitamin D. While it is made by the body, it also can also be obtained from animal products in the diet. Regardless of its source, in the blood, cholesterol combines with fatty acids to form lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are what transport cholesterol through our systems. You may have heard of “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol, this is where they come in. There are two types of lipoproteins, high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). The former, HDL, is the good cholesterol, because it transports cholesterol from the tissues of the body to the liver, so that they can exit the body. The higher the HDL, the lower the risk for coronary artery disease. The latter, LDL, is what you want less of. This is because LDLs transport cholesterol from the liver to the tissues of the body, so high levels of it are associated with atherosclerosis. When people have high cholesterol, it is often recommended they cut back on animal products, to reduce the amount of cholesterol in the body that can ultimately end up clogging up the inner walls of the arteries.
MONOUNSATURATED FATS – Monounsaturated fats are the “good” fats; they’re foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts and nut butters. They’re known as the most heart-healthy of the fats because they have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol levels (which if you were paying attention before means it lowers the bad kind, and raises the good kind). A little bit of fat in the diet can also help with weight management efforts because it can help slow digestion and help you feel full. This relates to heart health because keeping your weight in check can help reduce the risk for hypertension. On that note, even though these fats are “heart healthy,” it’s important to remember that the calories in them will still add up, so this does not give you cart blanche to eat as much as you’d want. The health benefits of high calorie “health foods” can be outweighed if they’re so caloric that they cause us to gain weight. In other words, there really can be too much of a good thing!
HYPERTENSION – Hypertension is the more formal term for high blood pressure. The Mayo Clinic defines it as when “long-term force of the blood against your artery walls is high enough that it may eventually cause health problems, such as heart disease.” To understand that it helps to have a grasp on what blood pressure is. Blood pressure is a measure of the force of blood against the blood vessel walls, when the heart beats, and between beats. Blood pressure becomes high when the heart is pumping more blood, and when the arteries are more narrow. Take a moment to visualize that, you can see how that would lead to a high pressure situation. In a sense, you can think of high blood pressure as an indicator that your heart is being forced to work too hard.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is bad because it can lead to aneurysms, damage the arteries and all sorts of damage to the heart. It increases your risk of developing arrhythmia, atherosclerosis, stroke, kidney failure and a host of other afflictions you don’t want. The scary thing is, it’s known as “silent killer” because often there are no physical symptoms, until damage to the heart has already been done. Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to your blood pressure (which is regularly checked when you go to the doctor) and know what dietary and lifestyle changes can impact it. Calcium and potassium are linked to lowering blood pressure, while overconsumption of sodium is a risk factor for high blood pressure. Being overweight, use of tobacco, lack of physical activity and stress all don’t help blood pressure.
SODIUM – This is one you likely know, but it plays a role here too, and it’s helpful for you to understand how and why. Essentially, an excess of sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure—and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for different forms of heart disease, and stroke. The thing is, most of us don’t realize just how much sodium we are consuming. On average Americans consume over 3,400 mg of sodium each day, which is more than double what American Heart Association’s recommended limit of no more than 1,500mg per day! The good news is, for most people, cutting salt intake can reduce blood pressure in just a few weeks (CDC)! And not only will reducing salt intake can help reduce your risk for hypertension, but over time, will make you less likely to crave salt too. To reduce sodium intake, opt for more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods.
SATURATED FATS – Saturated fats are less “heart healthy” than monounsaturated fats—a lot less. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature (think coconut oil), and often correlated with atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. This is likely because they’re a precursor to cholesterol; so eating them elevates blood cholesterol levels. Food sources of saturated fats include butter, lard, palm oil, coconut oil, cottonseed oil, and palm kernel oil. This sort of fat is also commonly found in dairy products and in meat, so if you have high cholesterol, you may get the recommendation to cut back on such.
CAPSAICIN – How to flavor your food sans salt? Spice it up! Capsaicin is the compound found in jalapeños, habaneros, cayenne and most other chili peppers, that gives them their kick. Capsaicin may lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, which accumulates on artery walls and constricts blood flow to the heart. According to research presented during a 2012 American Chemical Society meeting, spicy foods can increase the breakdown of cholesterol in the body, and may promote the flow of blood through blood vessels by blocking a gene that makes arteries contract. The spiciness also boosts metabolism, which can help with weight loss efforts, another thing one can do to reduce their risk for heart disease. Of course, eating spicy food can’t undo a poor diet. Skip the greasy, fried spicy foods like wings and instead consider adding peppers or hot spices to your favorite healthy dishes.
POTASSIUM – When most people hear potassium, they think bananas. That’s not wrong, bananas are rich in potassium, but you should also think heart health. That’s because potassium is big for reducing hypertension risk. Foods high in potassium can help lower blood pressure because it counterbalances sodium in the body, and it’s the overconsumption of sodium that is one of the easiest risk factors of hypertension one can control. Essentially, eating potassium rich foods flushes excess sodium from the system, through urine. This also means it can help reduce belly bloat.
The foods we eat can directly improve or deteriorate heart function. A healthy heart really starts with a healthy diet. By understanding the terms above, you are better informed to make decisions about what you eat, and thus better prepared to support your health through your diet.
Heron, M. Deaths: Leading causes for 2017 pdf icon[PDF – 3 M]. National Vital Statistics Reports;68(6). Accessed November 19, 2019.
“Heart Disease.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 22 Mar. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20353118.
CDC salt reduction : He FJ, Li J, MacGregor GA. Effect of longer-term modest salt reduction on blood pressure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;(4):CD004937.
“Hot Pepper Compound Could Help Hearts.” Acs.org, 27 Mar. 2012, www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2012/march/hot-pepper-compound-could-help-hearts.html.