9 February 12 Six Scientifically Validated Nutritional Tips for Heart Health: with Dr. Eric Ding

Guest post for MyNetDiary by Dr. Eric Ding

February is National Heart Month

I believe in the importance of evidence-based translational medicine. There is so much fluff and false claims in the nutrition world that I want to make sure all claims are justified with strong body of consistently supported scientific evidence. I’m an epidemiologist and nutritionist - so I like to focus on evidence-based medicine in the realm of disease prevention, because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Long-running research from Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition have established that over 82% of total heart disease in American woman are likely due to lifestyle factors, most notably poor nutrition. Indeed, nutrition is one of the major clusters of risk factors that cause heart disease. However, what 10 nutritional factors could we highlight for people to improve their health? Let’s list a few and discuss.

1) I rank sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) as one of the worst causes of heart disease. But it's not the sugar per se, but rather liquid sugar intake such as in soda and sweetened juices, because liquid sugar is partially “invisible” to our hunger control system.Indeed, the difference between liquid sugar and solid sugar is best seen in an experiment between sugary beverages vs. jelly beans (with same number of calories). While jelly bean eaters become full and ate less food later in the day, liquid sugar drinkers were not fully satiated and become hungrier sooner and consumed more calories at the end of the day (compared to solid sugar eaters). This is why sugary beverages (but not sugar) are inherently dangerous (Read my recent piece for more info). For the same reason, parents should not give too much SSB to their children.

2) Additionally, inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables is another major cause of heart disease in America. Only a small segment of the population gets 5 servings of fruits and veggies a day — and this actually includes French fries, which nutritionists don't really consider a vegetable (But how did the starch French fries get classified as vegetable by the USDA? It’s not hard to imagine what industry group had successfully lobbied USDA for the ‘French fry’ vegetable classification).

3) Additionally, beyond SSBs and French fries, generally, high glycemic load refined starches are a cause of heart disease. Therefore look for whole grains instead of white bread, brown rice instead of white rice, and steel cut oats instead of instant oatmeal. And avoid mashed and baked potatoes - they have incredibly high glycemic index and glycemic load - they are equivalent to almost pure table sugar in spiking one’s blood sugar (and elevating heart disease risk).

4) Avoid trans-fats at all cost. Many years ago, before the nutrition and medical community realized the dangers, the emphasis had been on avoiding butter — and instead people were recommended to consume margarine instead back in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health discovered that trans-fats, high in margarine sticks, were even worse than the saturated fat in butter for increasing heart disease risk. This eventually led to trans-fat bans from restaurants in NYC, and then the rest of the country. Trans-fats are inherently bad for both their ability to increase bad LDL cholesterol, lower good HDL cholesterol, and increase inflammation - all of which increase heart disease substantially. Therefore, avoid it at all cost!

5) Avoid red and processed meats - which have been consistently shown to increase the risk of both Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease. Processed meats also often have nitrites which exacerbate diabetes, which in itself is a strong causal factor for heart disease as well. Also keep in mind, that pork is a red meat, regardless of what advertising may try to persuade people otherwise.

6) Cocoa flavonoids are good against heart disease. In multiple systematic reviews of dozens of randomized trials, cocoa flavonoids are shown to lower BP, lower bad LDL, raise good HDL, improve insulin sensitivity, and improve blood flow. Recent reviews of multiple long term studies have also shown benefits for lowering heart disease. However, interestingly, the benefits in the trials were observed with doses of around 400-500 mg/day, equivalent of 33 bars of milk chocolate or 8 bars of dark chocolate. Thus, because it is unreasonable to consume so much calories and sugar and fat to achieve these levels of cocoa flavonoids through just chocolate bars alone… supplements of cocoa flavonoids are needed to achieve the benefits discovered (supplements available commercially, e.g. Cocoawell). The key is getting the benefits of cocoa flavonoids for heart disease while avoiding the calories, and for that, chocolate bars are not the solution - supplements may be the best option.

About Eric Ding, MD:

ERIC DING, a nutritionist and epidemiologist, is member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is also founder and Director of the Campaign for Cancer Prevention, and Director of Epidemiology for Microclinics International. His research primarily focuses on obesity and nutritional risk factors for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, as well as translation of research for population-wide prevention. His specific research expertise include: fatty acids, sex steroid hormones, and vitamin D. His broader research also encompasses social network effects on health, and population nutrition and global health disease burdens. After completing his undergraduate degree at The Johns Hopkins University with Honors in Public Health and election to Phi Beta Kappa, he earned his dual doctorate in epidemiology and doctorate in nutrition at age 23 from Harvard University. At Harvard, Eric has taught and lectured in more than a dozen graduate and undergraduate courses, for which he received the Derek Bok Distinction in Teaching Award from Harvard College.

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RD, CDE
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Foods & Recipes/Potatoes & French Fries Foods & Recipes/Red Meat Other Health Issues/Cardiovascular Disease

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