You probably don’t know that today is World Heart Day. No, not the Valentine-type heart. World Heart Day is about lifting awareness of cardiovascular disease prevention, treatment, and risk factors. More common knowledge than World Heart Day might be the fact that heart disease remains the number one killer in the United States, accounting for one-quarter of all deaths. But heart disease is just one segment of what we’re talking about. In addition, stroke, heart attack, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and congestive heart failure are all types of cardiovascular disease or CVD. When taken together, a little less than half of all Americans (48%) have CVD! This is a serious issue that has grown into a staggering statistic. It’s also a great reason to raise awareness during World Heart Day (and every day for that matter).
CVD is caused by a number of factors but is mainly driven by our diet and lifestyle choices. Typically, CVD is associated with a buildup of fatty deposits inside our arteries (called atherosclerosis), which cause a cascade of deteriorating health effects leading to CVD. What we eat determines the health of our arteries such that our diet makes the greatest impact on the outcome of our health. Luckily, our diets are well within our control, meaning the risk of developing CVD is not inevitable. There is an aspect of food and cardiovascular health that has recently emerged in research but hasn’t gained much popularity. This new research is about fasting and has shown striking improvements for those at risk for CVD.
How Fasting Improves Heart Health
You may have read our recent blog about fasting mimicking diets, which is safer and easier to follow than doing a complete fast (click here to read that blog). Among the several benefits of fasting is the lowering of risk factors for CVD. In fact, the researcher who designed the fasting mimicking diet, Dr. Valter Longo, discovered that those at high risk for CVD can be greatly helped by cyclical fasting. The benefits of fasting for this population include:
- Reduced belly fat and waist circumference
- Decreased inflammation markers
- Reduced LDL cholesterol
- Lowered triglycerides
- Lowered blood pressure equivalent to what is seen with blood pressure medication
- Decreased fasting glucose
Need we say more? The fasting mimicking diet is a type of intermittent, prolonged fasting that lasts for 5 days. During this time, calorie-controlled nutrients and supplements are taken in small amounts so that your body can enter a fasted state while avoiding the discomfort of hunger. This allows a person to extend their fast for longer periods. Studies show that both the intermittent aspect of fasting (routine, cyclical), along with the prolonged time period (5 days), are what specifically leads to lower rates of CVD. Dr. Benjamin Horne, a researcher at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute in Utah, points to a number of reasons why prolonged, cyclical fasting can lead to better heart health:
“Fasting affects a person’s levels of hemoglobin, red blood cell count, human growth hormone, and lowers sodium and bicarbonate levels, while also activating ketosis and autophagy—all factors that lead to better heart health and specifically reduce risk of heart failure and coronary heart disease.”
While there are several ways to follow an intermittent fasting schedule, it is recommended that people who have multiple risk factors for CVD to fast routinely about once a month until they achieve a healthy weight. Fasting can then be repeated 2-3 times per year to maintain heart health. Of course, your dietary diligence doesn’t only kick in when you’re fasting. Since maintaining heart health is a lifelong pursuit, then eating healthy must become a lifelong habit.
What to Eat When Not Fasting
So, you completed your routine fasting for this month and you can’t wait to eat a good meal. Great! But before making an impulse purchase in the checkout line (nothing of value is usually found here, edible or otherwise), let’s run through some guidelines to help keep you on track. Dr. Valter Longo, the researcher who developed the fasting mimicking diet, also developed a way of eating, coined the longevity diet. This diet not only lowers your risk for CVD but also allows you to age gracefully and live longer by replacing damaged cells with new healthy cells. In essence, Dr. Longo advocates eating more plants, healthy fats, less protein, and limited carbohydrates. Here is a breakdown of the components of the longevity diet, keeping in mind that those with sensitivities to gluten or nuts should modify this eating plan to suit their needs.
- No added sugar
- No red meat
- Limit poultry
- Limit dairy
- Large amounts of organic vegetables
- Legumes, beans, and lentils
- Whole grains (including pasta and bread) but less than 100 grams per day
- Fruits, 1-2 per day
- Olive oil
- Nuts, one handful per day
Other considerations of heart-healthy eating are to confine all eating to 12 hours per day (between 7 am and 7 pm for example), and to limit two meals and two high-fiber snacks per day for overweight individuals. Lastly, this is a low protein diet. It is recommended that a person eat approximately 0.33 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This is about 50 grams of protein for a 150-pound person, and 60 grams of protein for a 180-pound person. As a reference, one serving of meat is approximately 40 grams of protein.
Why are we limiting protein? Research has shown that a high animal protein diet was positively associated with cardiovascular death, whereas protein from plant sources was negatively associated with death from all causes. This points out the importance of knowing the source and quality of your protein!
Despite the large amount of evidence for cyclical fasting and the prevention of CVD, more research is needed in larger clinical trials as scientists work toward FDA approval. In the meantime, these results are certainly promising and are appropriate to discuss with your doctor as an integrative strategy. Fasting is not for everyone, however. Those who are underweight, pregnant, nursing, or have certain health conditions should not try a fasting diet. Also, keep in mind that medications for high blood pressure should not be taken while fasting unless it is determined that your blood pressure will not drop below normal.
In recognition of World Heart Day, we bring to light some new findings that support repeated or routine fasting for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. This, coupled with a whole foods diet low in protein and rich in vegetables and healthy fats can be an effective way to reduce risk factors for CVD. Not only will this style of eating and fasting provide lifetime benefits for your heart, but it also supports a long and healthy life by slowing disease progression and restoring vitality. Talk with our team at Healthy Connections to learn more about the fasting mimicking diet and the longevity diet!