A brief primer on the current state of the science; inflammation turns inherently healthful food factors (saturated fats and cholesterol) into problems
by Craig Weatherby
The term cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to the cluster of diseases that involve the heart and blood vessels (arteries and veins).
Most people diagnosed with cardiovascular disease suffer from atherosclerosis (plaque-ridden arteries).
The companion term "coronary heart disease" (CHD) means inadequate blood circulation to heart muscles and surrounding tissue, which usually results from atherosclerosis.
Thus, the near-synonymous use of the two terms arose because CHD results from CVD and is considered a form of CVD.
It is increasingly clear that CVD and resulting CHD are caused primarily by chronic inflammation, induced by stress, smoking, and poor diets.
This is why annual physical exams now include a blood test for the immune-system messenger chemical called C-reactive protein (CRP), which serves as a marker for inflammation.
Inflammation is both caused by and promotes creation of the unstable molecules known as free radicals, excesses of which arise in large part from poor diets, environmental pollutants, and stress.
Free radicals in the blood can oxidize (damage) any fats, cholesterol, blood cells, or connective tissue cells they encounter.
Arterial plaque consists largely of white blood cells (macrophages) that have become bloated and dysfunctional after enveloping oxidized cholesterol and fats in an attempt to remove them from the blood.
These bloated immune system helpers are often called “foam” cells because of their foamy appearance under the microscope. Foam cells become dangerous when there are so many that they begin to promote inflammation (by inducing release of pro-inflammatory messenger chemicals from other immune system cells) and accumulate to form inflamed arterial plaque.
The body covers plaque with a fibrous cap to protect the blood from its harmful blend of oxidized cells, fats, and cholesterol.
If the fibrous cap ruptures, a clot can form which partially or wholly blocks smaller blood vessels. If the clot is big enough, and the artery affected important enough, this can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or sudden death.
More commonly, these blockages gradually starve heart muscles of blood and oxygen, causing the condition known as ischemia.
In turn, ischemia contributes to congestive heart failure, stroke and heart attacks. Together with arrhythmia, heart failure, strokes and heart attacks are the four leading causes of cardiovascular-related death.
What drives the "silent" inflammation underlying heart disease?
The answer to the is question is simple: poor diets, stress, sedentary lifestyles, smoking, exacerbated by unlucky genetics.
Saturated fat and cholesterol have nothing to do with causing inflammation, but they can be damaged by it, and thereby become part of the arterial plaque that leads to most the problems associated with heart disease.
The solution is two fold, in terms of the kinds of foods to favor and avoid:
Helpful (Anti-Inflammatory) Foods
- Colorful fruits and vegetables, for their fiber and antioxidant, anti-inflammatory factors.
- Whole grains, for their fiber and antioxidant, anti-inflammatory factors.
- Seafood, especially fattier fish, which are higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3s
- Cooking oils low in omega-6 fats, especially extra virgin olive oil (high in artery-enhancing antioxidants), macadamia nut oil, “hi-oleic” sunflower oil, or non-GMO canola oil.
In truth, the antioxidants and omega-3s in plant foods and seafood do more than fight inflammation... they also exert genetic and other effects associated with reduced risk of cardiovacular disease and adverse cardiac events.
Unhelpful (Pro-Inflammatory) Foods
- Refined grains and sugars.
- Too much fat of any kind.
- Browned and charred foods in excess.
- Omega-6 fats, which predominate in America’s most commonly consumed vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, and cottonseed) and the takeout and packaged foods made with them.
These choices may be easier proposed than done... but at least you should know where your diet stands!