H for Health

The Impact of  Diet on Health

We often overlook the profound influence our diet has on our health.

Many of us believe that simply being physically active can offset the effects of unhealthy eating habits. Exercise is undoubtedly a key component of a healthy lifestyle, and it can decrease our risk of developing chronic diseases. However, even with regular physical activity, an unhealthy diet can lead to the development of arteriosclerosis and elevate the risk for chronic diseases. Consequently, it’s possible to experience high blood pressure and heart-related issues despite being in good physical condition.

Our knowledge about cardiovascular diseases has exploded in recent decades. When Anne was in medical school in the 1990s, it was still the prevailing belief that cardiovascular diseases most often were a natural consequence of aging, including the idea that our blood pressure naturally rises with age. As part of her education, Anne conducted several autopsies and saw how our arterial walls can become so calcified that they are rock-hard, stiff, and crunch when opened with scissors. We now know that cardiovascular diseases do not have to be an inevitable result of increasing age. Instead, they may be prevented, and in some cases even reversed, with the right lifestyle changes.

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Dietary Risk  Factors

In Denmark, in 2019, dietary risk factors were the fourth most common cause of death and disability, surpassed only by smoking, high blood pressure, and alcohol. Lack of physical activity isn’t even among the top 10 causes. In other words, we often overlook the profound influence our diet has on our health. Exercise alone cannot counteract the detrimental effects of an unhealthy diet on our body.

Consuming a typical Western diet can lead to observable fat deposits in the vessel walls of children as young as one year old. By age 10, early signs of arteriosclerosis may appear. In their 20s and 30s, individuals can develop plaques, which are fatty accumulations encased in calcium, within their vessels. Over time, this can progress to extensive calcification, obstructing blood flow and heightening the risk of complications such as high blood pressure, blood clots, and hemorrhages.

One of the first signs of arteriosclerosis in men is erectile dysfunction, resulting from calcifications in the blood vessels of the penis. If there are damaged vessels in one part of the body, it’s highly likely there are damaged vessels elsewhere. In parts of the world where lifestyles differ greatly from the West, age-related vascular changes are virtually non-existent.

Three times a day, you have the chance to decide what goes on your plate. If you feed your body the right fuel, its natural healing processes can get you back on track to better health.

Cardiovascular disease is  not an inevitable consequence of ageing

Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death worldwide, and it is a significant reason for decreased quality of life and premature death. In 2020, just over half a billion people lived with cardiovascular disease.

The former president of the American College of Cardiology and head of the Cardiology Department at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Dr. Kim Williams, has said, “There are two kinds of cardiologists: those who eat plant-based and those who haven’t read the research.” Kim Williams began eating plant-based in 2003 and has done so ever since.

According to the WHO, 80% of cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by three lifestyle changes: healthier eating, quitting tobacco, and regular exercise, with diet playing a central role. Research has shown that the body has an astonishing ability to heal itself, even after many years of an unhealthy diet.

How do you maintain healthy blood vessels?

Broadly speaking, there are three things that determine the health of your blood vessels:

  1. The cholesterol level in your blood
  2. Your blood pressure
  3. Your endothelial cells

How do you maintain healthy blood vessels?

Cholesterol is essential for our body, serving as a foundational element for, among other things, cell membranes and hormones. While our body can produce all the cholesterol it requires, maintaining an optimal level in the blood is crucial for overall health. Elevated cholesterol levels can result from factors like a diet high in fat, excessive alcohol intake, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and overconsumption of sugary beverages, as well as genetic predispositions. 

Cholesterol exists in three forms: HDL, LDL, and triglycerides. Saturated fats in our diet, primarily found in animal products and oils like coconut and palm, can increase blood cholesterol levels. It’s a widely accepted consensus among major health organizations that reducing our intake of saturated fats benefits our health, aiming for as low a cholesterol level as possible.

Blood  pressure

An unhealthy diet stands as the main contributor to high blood pressure.

Globally, half of the population in their 50s has high blood pressure, making it the leading risk factor for disability and premature death.

Elevated blood pressure often goes unnoticed due to its subtle symptoms.

Which is why it is often referred to as ‘the silent killer’’. Without intervention, it can result in critical complications like heart or brain blood clots and even kidney failure.

According to WHO guidelines, a blood pressure reading of 120/80 mmHg or lower is considered normal for adults.

Endothelial  Cells

The blood vessels in our body are not merely rigid tubes passively transporting blood. They can actively contract and dilate as needed. Our blood vessels play a role in preventing blood clots and secrete hormones. These functions are controlled by the cells lining the interior of all your blood vessels, the endothelial cells. Endothelial cells make up the body’s largest hormone-producing organ and have a combined surface area of 3000 square meters. It is the endothelial cells that produce the essential signaling molecule nitric oxide (NO), which, among other things, causes your blood vessels to dilate. The drug Viagra, used in the treatment of impotence, works by stimulating the endothelial cells’ production of NO. For good health, it is crucial that our endothelial cells function properly. Recent research has shown that dysfunction of our endothelial cells play a role in various diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and cancer. Our endothelial cells do not respond well to high-fat meals. This applies to both saturated fats and concentrated fats such as those found in plant oils and margarine. For 3-4 hours after a high-fat meal, our blood vessels contract, leading to lower blood flow. If we consume high-fat meals several times a day, our blood vessels may end up in this state constantly. The endothelial cells lose their ability to dilate, we end up with persistently narrowed blood vessels, and our blood pressure increases. It also becomes easier for fat and cholesterol to adhere to the vessel walls, increasing our risk of atherosclerosis. Fatty whole plant foods, such as nuts, seeds, and avocados, do not have the same adverse effect on our endothelial cells. They are not isolated and concentrated fats like oils but are instead good sources of antioxidants and omega-3, which promote healthy blood vessels and have anti-inflammatory effects.

Your Body Can  Heal Itself

Given the right circumstances, your body often has the capacity to heal itself. This is true even for certain cardiovascular diseases. Two prominent American physicians, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. Dean Ornish, have demonstrated that lifestyle changes centered around a low-fat, plant-based diet can heal damaged vessels with pronounced atherosclerosis. These groundbreaking studies indicate that it’s never too late to change dietary habits and reap health benefits not only in relation to cardiovascular diseases but also a wide array of other chronic diseases like diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and cancer (as discussed in our film ‘Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet and Chronic Disease’). Unlike conventional medical treatments that often address symptoms, a plant-based diet and the right lifestyle modifications target the root causes of these chronic diseases. Additionally, this approach comes without the many side effects associated with medical treatments.

It can be challenging to translate knowledge into action. There’s no financial incentive for the pharmaceutical industry when we change our lifestyles. Similarly, there’s no motivation to fund research and promote groundbreaking studies focused on a plant-based diet. This is likely why only a few are familiar with Esselstyn and Dean Ornish’s revolutionary research on the treatment of cardiovascular diseases.

If you are on medications to reduce blood pressure or cholesterol, transitioning to a whole-food plant-based diet may lessen or eliminate the need for them. As such, it is essential to discuss any dietary shifts with your doctor to adjust medications appropriately as your blood pressure and cholesterol levels change.

9 Hacks to achieve healthier blood vessels through your diet

Consume plenty of antioxidants, especially from green leafy vegetables, berries, and citrus fruits (Please watch our film ‘Eat a Rainbow of Fruit and Vegetables’).

2. Fiber
Eat abundant dietary fiber from legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

3. Salt
Reduce your salt intake. Be particularly mindful of industrially processed foods (like bread, pizza, deli meats, cheese, chips, and dressings) as they typically contain high salt content. The greater the salt reduction, the more significant the decrease in your blood pressure.

4. Animal-based foods
Minimize your intake of meat, eggs, and dairy products, as animal-based foods contain saturated fats, carnitine, and choline (you may want to watch our film ‘Milk, Business, Health, and Sustainability’). Carnitine and choline are converted by your gut bacteria and liver to TMAO, which can promote inflammation, oxidative stress, and DNA damage, thus increasing your risk of developing chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases.

5. Concentrated fats
Reduce your intake of concentrated fats such as oils and plant-based margarine, as they can decrease blood flow. Surprisingly, it is quite easy to learn to cook with minimal use of oil. For instance, vegetables can be sautéed in broth, soy sauce, or water instead of oil.

6. Oils
Limit your consumption of coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil, as they predominantly consist of saturated fats. These oils are hidden in many industrially processed foods such as ice cream, candy, chips, cookies, baby food, bread, pizza toppings, and ready-made meals. It’s a good practice to closely read the ingredients list on product labels. The earlier these oils appear on the list, the higher their content.

7. Trans fats
Minimize your intake of trans fats, which are found in industrially processed foods like baked goods, fast food, and snacks (For further information watch our film ‘How Ultra-Processed Foods are “Designed” to be Addictive’).

8. Flaxseeds
Consume 1 tbsp of crushed flaxseeds or 25 to 30 grams of unsalted nuts daily to improve the function of your endothelial cells and lower your LDL-cholesterol (Check out our informative film on flaxseeds as well).

9. Vitamin B12
Ensure you get an adequate amount of vitamin B12, as a deficiency can result in elevated homocysteine levels in the blood, which can lead to stiff blood vessels (Please watch our film ‘Vitamin B12’).

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