he story is told of townsfolk who noticed an injured man floating down the river near their community. They pulled the individual to shore, rendered first aid, and called in the doctors and nurses. They had no sooner finished resuscitating and helping the first casualty when two more injured victims floated by. They were not yet finished attending to the needs of these unfortunate people when they saw even more injured victims floating down the river.
Additional help was obtained from surrounding areas, and soon a large trauma center was built. Many excellent techniques for treating and salvaging severely injured patients were perfected. More and more medical personnel were recruited. The operation was very, very costly, but in the view of the medical personnel—and especially of the survivors—it was a great success. This further spurred the efforts and dedication of those committed to salvaging and treating the injured.
One day somebody expressed an interest as to why there were so many injured people floating down this portion of the river. This individual was fascinated not only by disease and illness of all kinds but also as to what causes certain diseases to be more common in some regions than in others. (Such people, who study disease patterns, are called epidemiologists.) In order to understand the problem better, our epidemiologist hiked upstream into the mountainous areas some miles from the trauma center. To his perhaps not-so-great surprise, he found a very popular hiking trail leading to a beautiful mountain resort; to reach the resort the hikers needed to cross a bridge, which spanned a deep and treacherous gorge. He discovered that this bridge, although it appeared to be stable and secure, would sway dangerously when the wind blew, and even more so when people were on it. This caused hikers to lose balance and fall into the rocky, raging rapids below. What was really needed was an intervention of prevention through the building of a safe and stable bridge. This would prevent the injuries and trauma and solve the problem upstream!
This story, of course, is fictional, but the point is clear—prevention is much better than cure.
The same is often true with health and wellness—much time, money, and resources are plowed into curative interventions when lifestyle changes can go a long way to promote wellness. This is certainly true with a significant proportion of heart disease.
Issues of the Heart
Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in most industrialized nations, including the United States. The disease process results from oxidized cholesterol being deposited in the lining of the arteries and causing narrowing or even blockage. A clot then forms on this narrowing (plaque), which has broken, or ruptured. This blocks the blood supply to that specific portion of heart muscle. If this situation is not corrected by the use of medications to dissolve the clot, or if a balloon catheter, which opens the artery (called angioplasty), is not inserted, the affected area of the heart muscle dies. This is called a heart attack. Up to 50 percent of people die from their first heart attack. It is a lethal condition that is thoroughly influenced by lifestyle, including diet.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a common cardiovascular disease that can worsen arterial and specifically coronary artery disease, as well as the arteries that feed the brain. When the latter arteries are damaged, stroke (“brain attack”) can occur. Hypertension is known as the silent killer because it often gives rise to no symptoms, yet it causes significant damage resulting in stroke, heart attack, and kidney and arterial disease.
What Can We Do?
Both coronary artery disease and high blood pressure require changes in lifestyle, including smoking cessation, weight control, exercise, and a more healthful diet. Numerous studies have been used to establish the guidelines for the best dietary practices to positively influence cardiovascular disease:
Balance the amount of calories you take in with the energy you expend. To lose weight one needs to consume fewer calories and exercise more frequently.
Limit the use of refined sugars and starches such as white sugar, white bread, and sodas. Instead, eat foods that are high in fiber such as whole wheat products and legumes (beans and lentils). These types of foods result in steady absorption of sugars needed for energy and reduce the insulin response. A healthful cardiovascular diet should include at least three servings of whole grains per day.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Consuming three or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day has been associated with a 27 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease risk. Green leafy vegetables and those rich in carotenoids (yellow and orange colors particularly) and vitamin C are particularly beneficial.
Eat more legumes (peas, beans, soybeans, and lentils), which improve cardiovascular health. This diet is associated also with a decreased incidence of colon cancer, a benefit that is enhanced by eating less meat.
Consume nuts regularly and lower your cardiovascular risk. Overall coronary heart disease risk is reduced by one third in both men and women who consume five ounces
of nuts twice a week or more. Nuts are a good source of unsaturated fatty acids, fiber, minerals, and flavonoids.
Eat foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, which have been associated with fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease. Although these fats are found in fish, alpha-linoleic acid—a building block of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)—and DHA (docosahexanoic acid), which are both omega-3 fatty acids, they also are found in flaxseed and a variety of vegetable and nut oils. The evidence shows that these latter sources also reduce cardiovascular mortality.
Avoid meat. There is very robust evidence showing that meat eating is associated with a significant increase in both cardiovascular disease as well as cancer. Meat and animal products have significant amounts of unhealthful saturated fats, including cholesterol, which is the main villain in atherosclerosis. Cutting out meat reduces cardiovascular and also colon cancer risks.
Limit salt intake to 2,400 mg. per day (one teaspoon of table salt total for 24 hours). If you have high blood pressure, this should be limited further to 1,200 mg. (one half teaspoon) per day in all food and drinks.
Drink lots of water. People who drink six to eight glasses of water have a reduced risk of heart attack.
Don’t drink alcohol: For 30 years the debate about the cardiovascular benefits of moderate alcohol consumption has raged. Despite scientific articles and analyses promoting alcohol for improved heart health, here are compelling evidence-based reasons not to take alcohol:
- Many studies have been shown to have flawed statistics, especially related to control groups.
- Alcohol use has been proven to be associated with the risk of addiction, trauma, and accidents, as well as domestic and other violence.
- Alcohol is a proven carcinogen (causes cancer), and
scientists are admitting that there is no safe dose of alcohol.
- There are no prospective-controlled trials to show the heart health benefits of alcohol.
- Even moderate consumption of alcohol can worsen blood pressure.
- The most compelling reason for Seventh-day Adventist Christians to avoid alcohol is to keep the mind clear and responsive to the leading and working of God’s Holy Spirit, who impresses us through our brain. Our minds should be clear and open to His biddings.
Dietary habits influence cardiovascular health. We have a role to play in exercising choice to maintain the best cardiovascular health and wellness.
Live Like an Adventist
In February 2009 U.S. News and World Report printed a list of 10 healthful habits that may help us live to be 100. Number 8 stated: “Live like a Seventh-day Adventist. . . . Followers typically stick to a vegetarian diet based on fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts, and get plenty of exercise. They’re also very focused on family and community.”
We have truly been blessed with knowledge; let us demonstrate accountability by implementing it. Bridges to better health will be the result.
- Limit calorie intake and portion sizes.
- Maintain ideal body weight.
- Eat at least five portions of fruits and vegetables per day.
- Eat a small handful of nuts daily.
- Avoid meat and saturated fats; choose legumes and whole grains.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates.
- Do not take alcohol.
- Limit salt intake.
- Drink plenty of clean, fresh water.
The following references were used in writing this article:
1. Gary E. Fraser, Diet, Life Expectancy, and Chronic Disease (Oxford University Press, 2003).
2. P. Libby et al., Braunwald’s Heart Disease, 8th edition (Saunders Elsevier, 2008).
3. N. Allen et al., Journal of the National Cancer Institute 101, No. 5 (Mar. 4, 2009): 296-305.
Peter N. Landless, M.B., B.CH., M.MED., F.C.P. (SA), C.B.N.C., F.A.C.C. is an associate director
of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.