Your heart sits at the center of your circulatory system, beating more than 100 thousand times every day or more than 2.5 billion times over a 70-year lifespan.
Learning how to have a healthy heart over those 70 years is up to each of us.
Unfortunately, almost one in three of all human beings on planet Earth either haven’t learned how to have a healthy heart or ignore what they have learned about it.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in 2016, cardiovascular disease accounted for nearly 18 million (31 percent!) of all global fatalities. More than 4 of every 5 of those deaths were from a heart attack or stroke.
What’s the top cause of heart attacks?
Atherosclerosis, or coronary-artery blockages from cholesterol forming fatty streaks along the inside of our arteries’ walls.
It may take decades for this “plaque” to build enough to cause a heart attack, but the process typically begins in childhood.
The CDC pinpoints four major behaviors to avoid if you’re wondering how to have a healthy heart.
- Eating foods high in cholesterol, saturated fats, trans fats, or salt.
- Lack of exercise and inactivity.
- Excessive alcohol consumption.
- Using tobacco.
A Family Conversation on How to Have a Healthy Heart
Now, as a concerned parent, I’m teaching my children how to take care of their hearts.
I begin each day researching and writing my Plantbased.com post. My family knows I’m writing, but most of the time, our lives are so busy my kids don’t get to read my posts.
So I’ve decided to start reading my posts to them after dinner. Over the past two weeks, they’ve covered:
- longevity and the world’s number one killer heart disease.
- high cholesterol, the leading cause of heart disease.
- eggs, the top source of cholesterol.
- best diets for a healthy heart.
Their questions have been insightful. Take our conversation last night. Here’s the gist of it, with some added details they’ll hear tomorrow night.
My oldest asked, “So, we need cholesterol, but not too much?”
“Yes,” I answered, “We need cholesterol. Our body uses it to build our cell walls. It’s a waxy fat substance similar to glue or mortar used to build a brick wall. Our body makes all the cholesterol we need.”
“So, we don’t need to eat foods with cholesterol?”
“Correct. Animals make their own cholesterol like humans, and when we eat animals, we are adding their cholesterol on top of our own.
When we consume too much, it can pile up in our arteries as plaque, causing our arteries to narrow and reduce blood flow to our heart. If we don’t eat it in our diet, there will be no extra cholesterol from which to form plaque.”
“And plants don’t make cholesterol?”
“That’s right! Plants have zero cholesterol. Plants actually clean out our arteries. Eating plant-based is like brushing your teeth to get rid of plaque, but animal-based foods are to our arteries, what chewy candy is to our teeth.”
“Is a little meat in the diet going to cause a heart attack?”
“Populations that have lived the longest usually included limited meat in their diet. For some, it was a delicacy they had on special occasions and probably made up less than 10 percent of their diet.”
Of course, part of me wants to tell them to avoid all cholesterol, not only for their health but also for the environment and animal welfare.
However, my kids already know my views on the matter. It’s more important that I be honest with them about the best available evidence.
Where We Are in the Research on How to Have a Healthy Heart
The best available evidence on how to have a healthy heart indicates that a mostly plant-based diet protects against arterial plaque buildup.
However, the science comparing exclusively and mostly plant-based diets is limited. One indication of this is that the US News and World Reports panel of top doctors chose mostly plant-based diets as their best diets for 2021.
I believe that eventually, scientific research will establish that the best diet is a properly supplemented, entirely whole-food plant-based one.
However, it remains too early to make that call. A clearer picture will emerge as the evidence accumulates.
Finding Trustworthy Research
This post from last week looked at the issue of industry-funded research. It’s often biased in favor of the industry’s perspective. So closely examining it and comparing it to other research is in order.
We did both by reviewing the four most recent studies on egg consumption and cholesterol. Compared to the two long-term studies (16 and 17.5 years), the short-term (7.8 years) one showed no egg-related increase in heart disease risk.
Considering that it takes arterial plaque decades to reach a dangerous level, this makes sense. The longer we consume dietary cholesterol, the more problems we’ll have as we age.
In 2020, the USDA’s updated Dietary Guidelines said as much: “The prevalence of coronary heart disease increases with age, and high LDL cholesterol peaks between the ages of 50 to 59 in men and 60 to 69 in women.”
However, cholesterol’s unhealthy effects can strike even earlier.
It’s Never Too Soon to Adopt a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle
While working as a paramedic, I once attended to a 36-year-old man who suffered a fatal heart attack snowmobiling. He left a wife and two children. Sadly, his case wasn’t unusual.
This Centers for Disease Control (CDC) map charting men’s heart-disease death rates begins tracking them at age 35!
The CDC further reports:
- 95 million U.S. adults age 20 or older have total cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL.
- Nearly 29 million adults have total cholesterol levels higher than 240 mg/dL.
- Between 2013 and 2016, the average total cholesterol for U.S. adults 20 and older was 191mg/dL.
Is it any wonder that for decades, heart disease has been America’s leading cause of death? We should stop pursuing “normal” cholesterol levels and instead pursue optimal ones:
- 150 for total cholesterol
- 75 for LDL cholesterol
I don’t intend to become another statistic. I want my kids to have their father around as they grow up – but I want to be more than just “around.” I want to be thriving.
So I’m following my own advice to eat plant-based – because a healthy heart is vital to healthy long-term relationships.