Diet and cardiovascular health

The influence of eating habits and food consumption on the health and function of the cardiovascular system. Researchers first conclusively connected diet with cardiovascular health in the 1950s when they recognized that dietary fat was a key source of cholesterol for the body. Health experts issued the first statements about this correlation in the early 1960s. Though researchers now understand much more about how the body acquires and uses NUTRIENTS, they continue to investigate the ways in which dietary factors, independent of as well as in conjunction with other lifestyle variables such as physical exercise, affect cardiovascular health. Much of this research has focused on the role of dietary cholesterol and fats, as excesses of these nutrients in the body are key RISK FACTORS FOR CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE (notably ATHEROSCLEROSIS).

Through the years doctors have recommended various “diets” (proportions and restrictions of nutrients) to support cardiovascular health and reduce the risk for CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE (CVD). Research has shown, however, that variety and moderation are factors most important for meeting the body’s nutritional needs. The body needs carbohydrates, proteins, and fats-the core nutrients in varying proportions according to age, activity level, and other variables. Rather than focusing on these proportions, however, health experts recommend instead shifting emphasis to the kinds of foods consumed to

  • eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grain products, low-fat dairy products, lean meats (especially fish and poultry)
  • eat fewer processed foods, which tend to be high in fats, carbohydrates, and sodium
  • balance the number of calories consumed with the number of calories expended through physical exercise

Many people consume far more fats and carbohydrates than they realize, so returning to nutritionally balanced EATING HABITS may at first seem restrictive in the context of a “diet.” Portion size is a significant factor as well. The intent of HEARThealthy eating is to supply the body with the nutrients it needs through food choices that appeal to the individual.

The body also needs a wide range of vitamins and minerals to carry out its functions and processes. Minerals such as calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium are additionally important for cardiovascular function. These minerals, called electrolytes because they conduct electrical current, facilitate and regulate the electrical activity in the HEART that causes it to contract. The KIDNEYS also use electrolytes to adjust the body’s fluid balance, a key aspect of BLOOD PRESSURE regulation. Excessive electrolyte consumption (such as sodium, the primary ingredient of table salt) or insufficient electrolyte consumption (such as results with prolonged VOMITING and DIARRHEA) alters the body’s fluid balances, which affects blood pressure and cardiac workload.

In recent years much attention has focused on nutrients that appear to inhibit or even prevent disease processes. Key among them in regard to cardiovascular health are ANTIOXIDANTS, omega fatty acids, and SOY. Antioxidants are chemicals that counter the effects of oxidation, a normal dimension of METABOLISM, in the body. Oxidation represents “spent” fuel, the remnants of energy generation. Oxidation produces molecular fragments called free radicals that randomly attach themselves to other molecules. When they do so, they create molecular structures that are not useful to the body. Researchers believe the accumulation of free radicals is a dominant factor in health conditions such as atherosclerosis and CORONARY ARTERY DISEASE (CAD). Antioxidants bind with free radicals, creating molecular structures the body can eliminate as cellular waste. Vitamins A, C, and E contain antioxidants that may slow the progress of atherosclerosis. Another ANTIOXIDANT, COENZYME Q10, also appears to have a measurable effect in slowing atherosclerotic processes.

Omega fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats the “good” fats-that help to lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) and also help to prevent ATHEROSCLEROTIC PLAQUE from accumulating. Sources of omega fatty acids are cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, and sardines. Soybeans and soy-based foods such as tofu contain alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which is an omega fatty acid precursor (the body can convert it to omega fatty acid).


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