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There’s an Ayurvedic proverb: When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.
When I went to med school, we got zero hours of nutrition training. (It’s improved ever so slightly since then, up to a whopping 19 hours.) When I started practicing and realized how much my patients needed my counseling on diet, I sought out that missing curriculum on my own.
While most cardiologists end up treating the symptoms of heart disease, I started focusing on the root cause. Eventually, it led me to found Step One Foods.
This cartoon sums up the problems with treating the symptoms of disease with unnecessary medicines and invasive procedures instead of addressing the root cause through diet. (A recent, major study confirmed the importance of diet and lifestyle as the basis of treating heart disease.)
The confusion: Cholesterol, carbs, and other complicating factors
There are two types of cholesterol, and it’s important to know the difference. Dietary cholesterol is the type that gives eggs and steak the bad rap. But that’s not the type that we cardiologists examine in our patients. We’re looking at blood cholesterol, which is recognized as an important risk factor for heart disease. Unfortunately, what you eat doesn’t have much impact on blood cholesterol.
There are also two types of carbs, and it’s also crucial to understand the difference.
Highly processed, simple carbohydrates that have a high glycemic load (like soda, candies, and crackers) digest quickly and speed into your bloodstream as sugar. The result? Insulin levels go up and our bodies go into storage mode, which makes us hoard bad cholesterol (causing LDL levels to spike).
Complex, unprocessed carbohydrates (such as oats, flax, chia and most fruits and vegetables), digest slowly and trickle sugar into the bloodstream. The result? Low insulin levels, which lead to lower LDL.
The solution: Scientific, evidence-based nutrition
So what kind of a diet will improve your heart health? The good news is, it’s actually pretty simple. As an evidence-based doctor, I’m constantly scanning medical literature for new research and studies.
Amazingly, there’s one simple philosophy that holds up every time and that you can fall back on to guide almost any food choice: These seven words from Michael Pollan apply to almost every scenario. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. The beauty of his simple advice is that it allows for great flexibility, recognizes the diversity of various global cuisines, and preserves the ability to eat delicious food.
Nature, after all, is brilliant. It has created perfect, whole foods with everything we need for optimal health.
Of course, there is more to the science behind Pollan’s philosophy. And it can be applied to specific foods. So if you’re detail-oriented and don’t mind fine print, here’s my ultimate guide to deciphering food labels, plus tips on how to navigate every aisle of the grocery store. If the thought of having to read up just to go to the grocery store makes you hyperventilate, no worries: Just skip all the interior aisles and repeat Pollan’s words as your mantra.
The upshot: You can give up dieting
You know what does not improve heart health? Fad diets. People act like there’s some big mystery to achieving weight loss and better health, but the truth is, we already know how to do it. Notice with Michael Pollan’s philosophy, there’s no obsession with calories or even weight loss. Weight loss is often the natural outcome of eating whole, real foods in reasonable amounts.
Of course, it’s not always easy to eat the way our ancestors did. Our great-great-grandmothers enjoyed some advantages: Most of them didn’t get home from the office late, travel for work, and they certainly weren’t surrounded by time-sapping technology. I suspect most of them didn’t have high cholesterol either. That’s where we come in: Step One Foods helps you eat real food, not too much, mostly plants when you can’t — or don’t want to — cook from scratch.