A mad heart? Hope not! Good and bad food for cardiovascular health

With advice from Prof. Loreto Nemi, UniCamillus lecturer

‘We are what we eat’, said the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, and this applies to the condition of our heart, the engine of our body. A healthy diet helps control body weight, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and diabetes, as well as providing cardio-protective nutrients that reduce inflammation and cellular damage. “90% of heart attacks are linked to risk factors such as dyslipidemia, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, poor diet, social isolation, depression, and smoking”, says Prof. Loreto Nemi, lecturer at UniCamillus on the MSc in Human Nutrition Sciences. “Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of mortality in the western world, and prevention is one of the most effective weapons. The first element to evaluate is certainly nutrition, on which we can directly act every day”.

Correlation between diet and cardiovascular health: the latest studies

It is no coincidence that several studies focus precisely on how dietary habits can improve or, conversely, impair heart health. One of these is research conducted by the Institute for Bioeconomics of CNR (National Centre for Research) and the University of Pisa. The study, published in Nutrients, revealed that pomegranate fruit waste offers considerable cardiovascular protection against hypertension. “Pomegranate waste contains molecules called ellagitannins, where we find ellagic acid and punicalagin, that is substances that act on improving the thickness of the endothelium, thus reducing blood pressure”, says Prof. Nemi, commenting on the CNR study. 

“The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of pomegranate juice have been known for many years, as it contributes to the decrease of cytokines, molecules that trigger an inflammatory response in the body”.

Another study analysing the importance of the correlation between nutrition and cardiovascular health was recently presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association, and was led by Victor Wenze Zhong, a researcher at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China. The research focused on the effects that intermittent fasting had on the heart health of the 20,000 Americans studied.

Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that alternates periods of fasting with periods of eating. There are different approaches to intermittent fasting, but one of the most common is the 16/8 method, where one fasts for 16 consecutive hours and eats during an 8-hour window.

The analysis of the group led by Zhong showed that subjects who ate in narrow time windows accumulated a 91% higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease over the years than the others. “However, some considerations need to be made with regard to this study, and the information needs to be filtered”, Prof. Nemi points out. “At the basis of how intermittent fasting works is the fact that abstaining from food for certain hours has been shown to lead to the production of sirtuins, the longevity proteins. Furthermore, in subjects with insulin resistance, not eating in the evening hours improves their metabolic condition“.

So, when is intermittent fasting harmful according to our expert? “Simply when you eat badly in the time slot dedicated to food intake! If you stuff yourself with burgers and chips during that time, your heart certainly suffers”, explains Prof. Nemi. “On the contrary, if the right amount of macronutrients is consumed during the 8-hour diet, favouring foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and monounsaturated fats, intermittent fasting can improve insulin sensitivity and, conversely, reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes”.

Heart: yes and no foods

A healthy diet translates into a healthy heart. But which foods are good for cardiovascular health, and which are bad? One of the main nutritional goals, in this respect, is to control blood pressure. “Controlling hypertension is possible by limiting salt consumption— a maximum of 5 g per day should be consumed”, says Prof. Nemi. Therefore, the first step in improving the quality of your diet is to limit sodium, eliminating or significantly reducing processed food, sausages, aged cheeses, salty sauces and condiments, and of course fast food. In addition, it is crucial to keep bad cholesterol (LDL) at bay, since this can lead to plaque formation in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease. “Again, processed food and food rich in saturated and trans fats should be eaten in moderation”, Prof. Nemi continues. “Foods that keep cholesterol at bay are whole grains and legumes, rich in fibre and beta-glucans, and oily fish, a source of omega-3, which has an anti-inflammatory and triglyceride-controlling effect”. Among the other foods with anti-inflammatory power Prof. Nemi also mentions extra virgin olive oil, “a precious element of our Mediterranean diet, as it is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidant molecules such as squalene and hydroxyvitol”, as well as oilseeds and dried fruit such as almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts.

To improve heart health, it is also crucial to control type 2 diabetes, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. “Excessive consumption of sweets and sugary foods leads to a glycaemic and insulin imbalance, thus promoting the possible development of dietary diabetes”.
However, Prof. Nemi leaves us with a sweet transgression: dark chocolate, “eaten in moderation, is beneficial for the heart, as it contains magnesium and polyphenols“. These indeed, have positive effects on blood pressure, reduce inflammation of the arteries and prevent atherosclerosis.