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Best Diet for Heart Disease: How Cavemen Avoided Heart Disease

Best Diet for Heart Disease: How Cavemen Avoided Heart Disease

Best Diet for Heart Disease - Caroline Cederquist, M.D. offers tips for adopting a heart-healthy diet if you or a loved one has heart disease. Learn the best diet for heart disease, and why it's not what you think!

According to DNA evidence, our genome hasn’t changed much in the past 10,000 years. However, with the advent of technology and our adoption of more sedentary lifestyles, our activity levels have certainly diverged from those of a hunter-gatherer.

Not to mention our diet has become increasing refined, processed, and tweaked from the foods our ancestors gathered from the land they lived on.

Our social standing may be totally 21st century, but deep in our genes, we are still citizens of the Paleolithic era.

While it is utterly impossible to go back to the diet that men and women who lived 10,000 years ago used to consume, it is possible to use the information to imitate and replicate their diets which we know are conducive to superior health. If we realign our diets with what our genetics dictate is best, then we can dramatically reduce our risks of cardiovascular-related events.

Our ancestors consumed a diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and berries. They did not have access to refined grains and sugars, except for occasionally honey. They ate nutrient dense, low sugar, fruits and vegetables like berries, plums, citrus, apples, cantaloupe, spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and avocadoes. The foods they ate largely depended upon what grew in the land environment around them as well as the season. They also trapped fish and consumed lean meats from wild game. And they had the least amount of disease and lowest markers of cardiovascular disease among all of our ancestors.

Western Weight Gain

With the advent of the 20th century, the hunter-gatherer mode of life became extinct in the Westernized World. Now in the beginning of the 21st century, we have genetic and scientific understanding that allows us to determine what the ideal diet for our genome would be, by comparing the diet and lifestyle that becomes wrought with disease, to the diet and lifestyle where cardiovascular events were rare, and body weight was largely normal across the population.

There was a transition time roughly 10,000 years ago when the hunter-gatherer societies shifted to an agricultural and grain-based diet. Documentation shows that this is when their general health began to deteriorate. Adults became on average, shorter in both men and women who ate cereals and starches than adults who hunted and gathered lean meats, fruits, and vegetables. Bone and teeth studies show that grain-based diets resulted in shorter life spans, higher childhood mortality, and a higher occurrence of osteoporosis, rickets, and other mineral and vitamin deficiency disease.

When populations today adopt the westernized lifestyle, obesity, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, and other diseases become increasingly common. The goal to realign our modern diet and environment with one that agrees with our ancient genome is purposed to improve our cardiovascular health, vigor, and longevity.

Best Diet for Heart Disease

In recent times, it is likely that no other scientific controversy has been more prevalent than the question of the ideal human diet. The classic Atkins v. Ornish diet debate is the epitome of this. The Atkins diet is full of protein, saturated fat, and advises strict carbohydrate avoidance. The Ornish diet recommends consuming most calories from carbohydrates, and to minimize the consumption of all animal protein fats.

Adequate amounts of protein and fat provided dieters with superior satiety, as opposed to a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet like Ornish, which made it feasible for people to stick with. This is a large part of why the Atkins diet was so helpful for people trying to lose weight. However, the high level of saturated fat, low level of antioxidants may promote damage to the lining of arteries (atherosclerosis) in the dieters who chose to eat an Atkins-type diet. The very low fat, high carbohydrate Ornish diet has been found to elevate triglycerides.

Importantly, elevated triglycerides is a sensitive marker for insulin resistance, which is a very common metabolic condition that affects the majority of people who struggle with weight loss. An increase in insulin resistance makes dieters hungrier and metabolically a worsening of insulin resistance itself makes it easier for a person to gain weight and harder for them to lose weight.

What We Know is True

Both diets, Atkins and Ornish, claim to be an answer to obesity and cardiovascular disease, but there are only 3 things that have been scientifically proven to do this.

Three major dietary approaches to preventing cardiovascular events

1. Replace saturated and trans-fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

2. Increase Omega-3 oil intake

3. Eat a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, specifically avoiding a high carbohydrate or high sugar load.

Despite what many people have come to believe, there is no strong evidence that links cardiovascular disease and intake of meat, cholesterol, or total fat. Interestingly, the three things that have been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease are consistent with the diet that Paleolithic humans were eating.

Drastically Different Diet Today

Our ancestors consumed foraged foods, and hunted from their environment. This provided them with lean protein, lots of fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Compared to the modern American diet, it had 3 times more fiber, twice as much poly and monounsaturated fats, 4 times as much omega-3 fat, and a whopping 70% less of saturated fat. It contained 3 times as much lean protein, and 4 times as much potassium, with sodium intake being 5 times lower.

The Paleolithic diet was free of any refined grains and sugars. These are striking differences from what we eat today and what we were designed to eat, and it goes to follow that the epidemics of cardiovascular disease and obesity are likely due to these discrepancies, at least in part.

The one thing that all health experts agree on? That we all need a higher intake of fruits and vegetables in our modern diet. Most experts advise 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Our ancestors ate approximately 8 or more daily servings of fruits and non-starchy vegetables. This is hugely important, as scientists feel they haven’t scratched the surface of all the health promoting factors in natural plant foods.

Lean Body Weight

Growing evidence shows that a diet containing moderate amounts of healthy fats and lean proteins, paired with carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables and fruits, as well as daily exercise is positively the most effective way to achieve a healthy body weight, and maintain it too. This was exactly how our ancestors did it too.

Vegetarian or ‘Breaditarian’?

Strong evidence shows that hunter-gathers were omnivorous, and ate both meats and plants. Strictly vegetarian diets are not necessarily associated with improved health. When two different populations were compared, ones who ate strictly vegetarian with ones who ate fish as well, the fish-consuming group had lower blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol. They also had higher levels of healthy Omega-3 which is extremely cardio-protective.

Modern vegetarian diets are often more of ‘breaditarian’ diets, because they rely heavily on processed carbohydrates like white rice, and flour and sugar, potatoes, and pasta. With this high-glycemic load, it predisposes vegetarians to metabolic syndrome (which affects 40% of US adults), and cardiovascular disease (one of the leading causes of death in America, responsible for 41% of fatalities).

Hunter-gatherers had about half of their daily calories sourced from meat or animal foods like dairy and eggs, and during certain winter climates, at only meat, organs, and fat from animals during winter months, and had less heart disease with this. Even thought increased meat consumption in Western diets has been associated with increased cardiovascular risk, the Paleolithic societies were relatively free of the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease, making it largely considered the best diet for heart disease.

Interestingly, wild game naturally contains about 4% fat, with relatively high levels of monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fats. Compare that to fatty grain-fed domestic meats, which contain up to 25% fat, with most of it saturated. It’s understandable that many people don’t prefer the ‘game’ taste of wild meats, and so the modern-day alternatives would be protein sources that are low in saturated fat, such as poultry without the skin, fish, eggs, and lean cuts of red meat and pork with visible fat trimmed. If you choose red meat, look for the word loin or round, as these are typically the leanest cuts.

Diets high in lean protein can improve lipid profiles and overall health. Lean animal protein eaten at regular intervals (like at every meal) improves satiety levels, increases calorie burn from foods consumed, and improves insulin sensitivity, which plays a huge role in weight loss. Protein also provides a variety of essential nutrients.

Choose Your Meat Wisely

It is extremely important not to cook red meats at high temperatures, because this can cause charred meat, which produces high levels of heterocyclic amines (HCA’s). These HCAs increase the risk of gastrointestinal and prostate cancers. Meats loaded with salt and preservatives also contain many carcinogens. Paired with a high intake of vegetables and fruits, properly cooked lean fresh meat is a healthy and essential component of a varied diet.

Nuts As A Staple Food Source

Of all the fat the Paleolithic people consumed, half of it was in the form of monounsaturated fats. We know these healthy fats improve the health of our arteries, and reduce our risk of heart disease. In many studies, nuts have proved to be a valuable source of these healthy monounsaturated fats, and they protect our cardiovascular system from damage.

Recent studies showed that people who at nuts 5 times or more per week had a 50% reduction in their risk for heart attacks, compared to people who rarely or never ate nuts. Nuts have also been shown to reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes, and nut consumption can lower LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels.

As a source of plant protein, nuts provide other benefits for heart health, like vitamin E, folate, magnesium, copper, zinc, and selenium. Nuts also have a lot of fiber and healthy fat, which increase satiety levels for a longer period of time compared with carbohydrate laden snack foods that are typically eaten today. If you are not nutty over nuts, try avocados, dark chocolate, and olives, and olive oil instead of sugary foods or starches. Studies have shown that if you replace saturated fat with carbohydrates, your cardiovascular risk can improve slightly, but if you replace saturated fat with healthy monounsaturated fat, you reduce your risk of heart disease by 30%, making this type of diet the best diet for heart disease

Trans Fatty Acids Didn’t Exist

While some trans fatty acids are naturally found in small quantities in animal fat, for the first time we have started consuming markedly more trans fat, as they are often in the ingredient list in commercially prepared foods. Trans fatty acids are created when hydrogen is pressured into edible oils. This is performed by the food industry to prolong the shelf-life of foods like crackers, cookies, donuts, and processed snack foods. Trans fats are also present in margarines, deep-fried foods, and is recently appearing more often in some canola oils.

Trans fats lower your healthy cholesterol levels, and increase your LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. To top that off, these deadly fats increase your risk of cancer and heart disease dramatically. Want to reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by half? Just replace the 2% of total daily calories from trans fat with the same amount of healthy unsaturated fat!

Drink What the Cavemen Drank

With water as the almost exclusive beverage of our Paleolithic ancestors, studies have shown that 5 glasses or more of water per day is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. This may be because when you drink water, you are not typically drinking a soda alongside it. It could also be related to the fact that water provides good hydration and helps blood flow properly through your veins than any other beverage. Our genes tells us that we survive best on water, and so it should remain the principal fluid we choose to drink.

Calorie-dense, nutritionally-barren sodas have inarguably contributed to the rise in obesity and insulin resistance. Fruit juices make the list as well, because they are replete with sugar, making it better to eat the whole fruit, as the fiber helps reduce the glycemic load.

And Tea, Too

Having been brewed for thousands of years, tea is packed with antioxidants and healthy phytochemicals. People with coronary artery disease who drink tea have been able to reduce their blood pressure. Two recent studies have shown drinking more than 2-3 glasses of tea per day reduced the risk of heart attack by 50%, compared to people who drank no tea at all.

Fit as a Paleolith

It goes without saying that our ancestors didn’t drive cars or take buses. They didn’t ride elevators or use washing machines.  They walked an average of 5 -10 miles daily, as they searched for food. They lifted, carried, climbed, stretched, leaped, and did what they needed to secure their food and protection. To put it into modern terms, these individuals trained with a variety of aerobic, resistance and flexibility exercises.

These are also the exercises that studies show are the most effective in preventing cardiovascular diseases. The research all lines up with the fact that we are genetically adapted to live an extremely physically active lifestyle. If we become sedentary, we are at risk for obesity, hypertension, the metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and most kinds of heart disease. If we stay active, and exercise regularly, we are reducing our risk with every step.

This is also likely why our remote ancestors avoided weight gain, even in times of plenty. This was in part because they were extremely active. Regardless of what you eat, studies have shown time and again that the best way to maintain weight loss is by daily physical exercise.

While it is really not practical or possible to recreate all of the prehistoric living conditions today, these lifestyle factors can certainly serve as a template for us to avoid degenerative cardiovascular diseases, and life a long, healthy, and vigorous life.

Summary of How to Develop a Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle

1. Eat whole natural, fresh foods, and avoid highly processed and high glycemic foods.

2. Consume a diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries. Avoid refined grains and sugars. Nutrient-dense, low-glycemic load fruits and vegetables like berries, plums, citrus, apples, cantaloupe, spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and avocados are best.

3. Increase your Omega – 3 consumption from fish, fish oil, and plant sources.

4. Avoid trans fats entirely, and limit your intake of saturated fats. This means avoiding all fried foods, hard margarine, commercial baked goods, and most packaged and processed snack foods. Instead of saturated fats, add in healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, olives, and oils.

5. Increase the amount of lean protein from poultry, fish and lean meats. Look for the word round or loin as these are typically leaner. Avoid fatty dairy and salty, fatty processed meats like bacon, sausage, and cold cuts.

6. Drink water or tea.

7. Do a variety of exercises that have cardio, strength, and stretching involved, ideally outdoor activities.

Source: O’Keefe, Cordain. Cardiovascular Disease Resulting from a Diet and Lifestyle at Odds with Our Paleolithic Genome: How to Become a 21st Century Hunter-Gatherer. Mayo Clin Proc. 2004; 79: 101-108.

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