Food as medicine is far from a new idea. Research has long shown that our food choices can either improve our health or make it worse.
The fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are centerpieces of the Mediterranean diet have been proven to lower diabetes risk. And the metabolites produced from eating walnuts have been proven to lower your risk of both diabetes and heart disease.
But what if you’ve already developed heart disease? Can your diet make a difference in keeping it under control and preventing more severe damage, or even death?
Absolutely. And there’s one food in particular that can offer the greatest benefit.
Fatty fish lowers cardiovascular disease and death risk
A diagnosis of heart disease is a serious wake-up call. Some people heed that call, while others wonder if the diagnosis is the beginning of a downward spiral they have little control over. Well, a very large study has proven it doesn’t have to be…
Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, found that regularly eating fatty fish can help prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) in individuals who are at higher risk due to heart disease or stroke.
In the study, people with existing heart disease, eating at least 175 grams (about two servings) per week of fish, lowered their risk of going on to develop major CVD. Not only that, the research found it lowered their mortality as well.
The research team, led by Dr. Andrew Mente, performed an analysis of four large studies, which included 191,558 participants from 58 countries.
His team found the strongest benefit came from eating fish with the largest amount of omega-3 fatty acids. These included salmon, sardines, mackerel, cod, herring, trout and canned tuna.
Another interesting find from the study is that healthier people didn’t seem to have as much to gain. Those without existing heart disease or stroke who more fish had a less pronounced benefit. But, according to Dr. Mentes, people with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease can still enjoy modest protection from CVD by eating fish rich in omega-3.
In fact, a meta-analysis published in 2020 concluded that “EPA and DHA omega-3 intake is associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease events, the cause of 7.4 million deaths globally each year, and reduced risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack), including fatal heart attack.”
Omega-3’s protective superpower against inflammation
“Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce inflammation throughout the body, therefore lowering the risk for cardiovascular disease in people at high risk,” says Jerlyn Jones of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
But what’s the connection between inflammation and heart disease?
Dr. Donna Arnett, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, provides a useful analogy.
“Think about a splinter in your finger or an abscess on a tooth,” she says. “Our body launches an attack with our white blood cells and chemicals that results in redness and swelling to kill the bacteria or rid the body of the intruder.”
That’s an inflammatory attack launched by the immune system to help heal. But when it comes to chronic disease, inflammation can contribute to the damages.
When the heart is “injured” by things like high blood pressure and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, protective fatty deposits can build up inside the walls of our arteries. The result, of course, is blocked arteries and increased risk of stroke and heart attack.
Why your diet matters now more than ever
Jerlyn Jones explains that, for people with heart disease, this information is even more important during times like the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you just don’t like fish, she suggests getting your omega-3s by adding hemp hearts or ground flaxseed to cereal, yogurt and salads, or snacking on edamame or walnuts. And, of course, omega-3s are also available in supplement form krill oil.
On the other hand, if you’re a fish lover, consider following the Pesco-Mediterranean diet, a perfect “middle of the road” choice that eliminates red meat, but isn’t a fully vegetarian diet.
“[I]t’s important to eat well to keep your immune system in top condition and your heart healthy,” says Jones. “Start with choosing omega-rich fish along with plant-based omega-3 fatty acids as part of a healthy dietary pattern to lower risk of cardiovascular risk during the pandemic and beyond.”
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Inflammation and heart disease — American Heart Association