Nutrition Meets Food Science

Diet and Heart Health

Heart disease has become very common among Indians. It was earlier known as the old age disease but there are reports of many much younger persons having heart problems. When we consider the various factors causing the disease and age is only one of them. There are many other factors including high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, diet and physical activity decide whether the person is prone to heart disease.

Diet and physical activity are probably among the most important factors, which in fact may affect the other factors. Hypertension may be because of high intake of sodium coming from the diet. That and obesity both could be controlled by changing the diet to reduce caloric intake as well as increasing the physical activity.

Health professionals suggest daily exercise not just to burn some calories consumed but also to keep fit, which would help heart health. Urbanization has not only created hurdles in physical activity by providing means to save walking or climbing stairs etc. but also given us electronic devices which take care of our chores and give us entertainment reducing our outdoor time for walks or sports etc. We need to find time to provide at least an hour every day for physical activity that would help in also combating some other contributors such as diabetes.

One thing that we can certainly control is our diet. Our diet has changed over decades and we are not only consuming more calories but also the quality of diet is prone to obesity, diabetes and many other ailments that not only contribute to heart diseases but also other problems.

People have been consuming more of refined grains including wheat, rice and corn rather than whole grains containing micronutrients and dietary fibre. Dietary fibre helps us with satiety, which gives us signal that we have eaten enough and can stop. It also has soluble fibre that lowers total and LDL cholesterol. It also lowers glycemic index. Refined grains have higher glycemic index than whole grains.

Another change has been that people have been eating a lot of restaurant food that was delivered. These have higher levels of fat, sugar and salt, all of which are not healthy when consumed in large amounts in diet. To make matters worse, snacking became very common and most snacks also had these ingredients in excessive amounts.

Earlier it was thought that dietary cholesterol was detrimental and was supposed to be a big factor in promoting heart disease. It is still recommended that people with heart disease should control dietary cholesterol. However, for normal people consumption of animal foods with cholesterol, such as eggs, dairy products and meats within limits not to exceed the dietary cholesterol beyond about 300 mg would not create any problem with respect to heart disease. These are foods with high contents of quality proteins which should not be avoided in diet.

One of the factors having the biggest impact through diet is fats. Consumption of saturated fats has been shown to increase the cholesterol in blood while mono and polyunsaturated fats lower the cholesterol especially the LDL cholesterol. Even worse is the trans-fat, which not only elevates LDL but lowers the HDL cholesterol that is supposed to be protective against heart disease.

Many bakery products contain good amounts of trans fats. As trans fats have higher melting point, the product with it, does not feel greasy. Fried foods with trans fat oils also provide no greasy appearance and last longer than higher unsaturated fats. However, because of their undesirable effect on heart condition, government has asked people manufacturing and using fats containing trans fatty acids, e.g., partially hydrogenated fats (vanaspati), to ensure that trans fat content is not over 5% and in future to make all fats trans-fat-free.

Among fat, omega-3 fatty acids have shown ability to lower LDL cholesterol. Fish, especially fatty marine fish have large amounts of omega 3 fats and are very beneficial for heart health.

There are some components in foods that are beneficial with respect to heart health. Mediterranean diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, sea food, nuts and legumes and olive oil, was found to be very heart healthy.

Food products sold in the market have to provide nutrition information on the labels. If one consumes good amounts of such foods, then it would help if this information is used to improve the quality of diet. It gives both macro- and micronutrients per 100g of food. One can see if the saturated fat and trans-fat are present in appreciable amounts. There is also quantities of sugar and sodium or salt listed. One can use this information wisely to restrict the amounts of those food products having high amounts of these. Some mention the amounts of omega 3 and dietary fibre if present. These products are heathier.

It must be remembered that there is a difference between diet and individual food or product. The total diet is more important over a period rather than eating an occasional food product whether healthy or unhealthy. We need not totally avoid foods high in fat, sugar and/or salt. However, we must control the intake of such foods. Regular consumption of these in large quantities is detrimental to health.


Dr Jagadish Pai

Editor, PFNDAI

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