According to a story by Lauren Cox for ABCNews/Health, a recent discovery revealed that mummies housed at the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo showed signs of having had heart disease. Doctors performed a CT scan used in diagnosing people today on the mummies and found calcium deposits in arteries — evidence of plaque build-up that leads to hardening of the arteries. The story also reports the doctors were surprised by their findings: “We thought that we would find it, but maybe very rarely, and we thought that if we did find it, it wouldn’t be so severe,” said Adel H. Allam, the lead author of a letter to the editor.
Is everyone predisposed for heart disease?
People living 3,500 years ago certainly could not have faced the same lifestyle challenges we face today — lack of exercise and a ready supply of processed meats and other foods high in fat and salt. If they still had heart disease in the absence of these factors, perhaps people are predisposed for heart disease. If so, how we expect to avoid the disease today with all the added risk factors?
Does lifestyle impact one’s risk of heart disease?
While certain people are predisposed for a greater risk of heart disease, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the same lifestyle habits that contribute to heart disease today were also present during the lifetimes of the mummies tested. Only the wealthy were mummified in ancient Egypt, which means that mummies tested probably did not do physical labor related to work and likely led sedentary lifestyles. Being wealthy would also mean they had access to meats high in cholesterol, which were preserved in large amounts of salt during that time.
While I’m not relieved that the mummies had heart disease during their lifetime, I am relieved that lifestyle factors may have played a part in the development of their disease. Modifying lifestyle habits and reducing risk factors that contribute to heart disease — a diet high in fat and salt and a lack of exercise — may have prevented heart disease from developing during the lives of these ancient Egyptians just as it does for people living today.
In addition to sugar, another white granular substance used to enhance the flavor of food is in the news – it’s salt. Many people have cut-back or quit adding salt to prepared foods where possible and limited their consumption of processed foods high in sodium. But according to yesterday’s Washington Post, the average American is still consuming almost twice as much sodium as the recommended daily limit, with 77% of sodium coming from processed foods.
FDA’s ten-year plan
The story also reports that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is beginning an initiative that will require manufacturers to gradually reduce the amount of sodium added to processed foods over a 10-year span. This would allow Americans to become accustomed to the taste of foods as salt is gradually decreased.
Recommended sodium limits
To reduce your risk of heart disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended limiting sodium to 1,500 mg daily. The average american consumes 3,435 mg daily. To put things in greater perspective, a teaspoon of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium. Campbells Healthy Request chicken noodle soup has 120 calories and 410 mg sodium per 1-cup serving, almost a third of the 1,500 mg daily limit.
Sales for many processed foods would likely suffer without a gradual reduction in salt, so I don’t expect this to be an easy task for the FDA, manufacturers or consumers. Even with a gradual reduction in sodium, some foods may never be palatable without salt. There’s the question of whether inherently salty foods like pickles would need to comply. I’m wondering about olives. Change isn’t going to be easy, but change we must.
A study published yesterday by the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) concludes that a correlation exists between dietary added sugars and blood lipid levels among U.S. adults.
The culprit: added sugars
The study defines added sugars as caloric sweeteners added to processed foods by manufacturers or added to prepared foods by consumers to make foods more desirable. Sugar added to oatmeal, tea and coffee; sugary drinks, such Coke and Pepsi, and most processed foods meet the description of “dietary added sugars.” Although complex carbohydrates found naturally in fruits and vegetables, such as corn, beets and bananas, ultimately break down and become chemically similar to added sugars, they are not the same as dietary added sugars.
Trans fats and cholesterol have been known to increase the risk of heart disease by collecting along artery walls and eventually hardening into plaque. Although exactly how is not understood, it’s been known that excessive carbohydrate consumption causes a lipid profile that correlates with increased risk for heart disease.
A balanced diet is essential
That doesn’t mean carbohydrates can be eliminated from your diet to reduce your risk of heart disease; they are essential for good health for the energy and nutrients they provide. Added dietary sugars increase total carbohydrate consumption to unhealthy levels without adding any nutritional value. The answer is to eat a healthy diet with balanced portions of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Added dietary sugars upset the balance because they increase carbohydrate levels and they lack nutrients.
Sugar under a different name
Check the sugar listing on the nutritional facts panel and read the list of ingredients for processed and packaged foods. It’s surprising how often added dietary sugar can be found — it’s even in ketchup and mayonnaise. But it’s not usually listed as “sugar” in the ingredient list. This About.com article has a handy list words for added dietary sugar to lookout for in ingredient lists:
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids
- Dehydrated Cane Juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum or sorghum syrup
- Turbinado Sugar
Although it might seem trite, a food pyramid is still a good tool for learning how to eat healthier. Categories of foods are arranged in sections within a pyramid as an easy-to-remember visual guide of the types and quantities of foods to be eaten. Categories near the pyramid’s base take up more space and represent foods that should be eaten in greater quantities and more frequently. Categories near the top of the pyramid are for foods that should be consumed in smaller quantities and less frequently.
Reducing saturated fats and cholesterol is important to improving heart-health, but it’s not a stand-alone solution. A balanced diet that includes categories of foods from a food pyramid, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, is necessary to achieve optimum heart-health.
The Mayo Clinic provides a Healthy Weight Pyramid tool on their Web site. The site also provides food pyramids for healthy diets that fit a variety of lifestyles:
- Latin American
If you compare the categories from the pyramids on the Mayo Clinic’s site, you’ll see that every pyramid includes a small amount of fat daily as part of a healthy diet — as long as it’s the right type and eaten in moderation.
Basic principles apply
With a variety of food pyramids to choose from, why not choose the one that most closely matches your preferences and lifestyle? The basic principles of a healthy diet are the same on all pyramids displayed on the Mayo Clinic’s Web site:
- Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Reduce intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.
- Limit sweets and salt.
- Drink alcoholic beverages in moderation, if at all.
- Control portion sizes and the total number of calories you consume.
- Include physical activity in your daily routine.
Dining out can be challenging for people trying to maintain a heart-healthy diet. According to a report by the National Restaurant Association , the average American eats out more than 4 times a week. Based on three meals a day, that’s nearly 20 percent of total meals eaten during a week.
Recognizing fat on the menu matters
There are times when eating out is preferable or simply just unavoidable — lunch tops the list for the meal eaten out most often. But since food eaten out can be one-fifth of an average week’s meals, it’s important to learn how to limit the amount of fat in foods ordered.
Meals eaten out aren’t served with an ingredient list or food labels, so it can be difficult to know which foods will help to maintain a heart-healthy diet. With a few pointers, you can recognize which menu items are most likely to be high in fat and which foods are better bets. And with a few modifications, a fat meal can become leaner.
Tips for reducing fat
Make better choices when dining out with these tips from American Dietetic Association:
- Choose foods from the menu that have been baked, braised, grilled, broiled or poached. There is usually less fat required in cooking.
- Avoid foods that are described as batter fried, pan fried, creamed, crispy or breaded.
- Order sandwiches without mayonnaise or bacon. Ask that mayonnaise and sauces to be placed on the side and use sparingly.
- To avoid eating too much before the meal arrives, ask to have the bread and chips delivered with your meal.
- Replace French fries and chips with fruit or a baked potato. Skip the sour cream and butter altogether and top baked potatoes with salsa and a sprinkle of cheese instead.
- If portions are large, split the meal with your dining partner or take the other half home.
For a complete list of tips, visit the American Dietetic Association’s Web site.
When cholesterol causes plaque to form inside artery walls, the body’s natural response to injury can become its worst enemy. I attended a lecture yesterday to hear Dr. James Park, an interventional cardiologist with CIVA in Dallas, explain why this happens and what causes the need for stents.
Perils of plaque:
Like me, many people attending the lecture assumed that plaque build-up only posed a problem by causing a gradual narrowing of arteries that could, over time, restrict the flow of blood to the heart. Dr. Park explained that pieces of plaque inside artery walls could break away, causing the body’s natural response to injury to kick in. In an attempt to repair the injured area, blood begins to clot, which either further narrows the artery or completely blocks the flow of blood through the artery and causes a heart attack.
Dr. Park presented good visuals to demonstrate procedures for locating blocked arteries and restoring the flow of blood:
- Angiogram: Dye is inserted into arteries and an image taken to determine where the blockage has occurred.
- Angioplasty: A balloon is inserted into the area where the clot has formed to expand the artery and allow the clot to be broken into smaller pieces and removed.
- Stent: A support inserted into the artery so it will remain open to allow blood to flow through.
Procedures in action:
Video produced by Nucleus Medical Art from The Baltimore Sun’s Web site demonstrates these procedures.
Learning how to reduce cholesterol levels is easy; putting the information to practical use, not so easy. With seemingly small decisions as what to eat for breakfast having a major impact on cholesterol levels, it’s no wonder the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that someone dies from a coronary event every minute.
But if I’m going to manage my cholesterol levels and reduce my risk of having a coronary event, I’ll need to find practical ways to improve my diet.
According to guidelines published by the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee, a major first step in reducing cholesterol levels is to limit overall fat intake to no more than 35% of calories needed to maintain a healthy weight.
I suppose I could keep a running total of fat calories in the food I eat each day, but that wouldn’t be enough. Within overall fat intake, saturated fats should be limited to less than 7% of total calories, and trans fatty acids should be substituted with unsaturated fats, which are reported to help reduce cholesterol levels.
Let’s see how this correlates with my breakfast. The label on my carton of 2% milk states that just one serving has 5 grams of total fat and 3 grams of saturated fat, or 8% and 15% respectively of the daily value for a 2,000 calorie diet. And at 231 milligrams of cholesterol, one egg – by the way, this includes eggs used in baked goods – almost exceeds my entire day’s worth of recommended cholesterol from food sources.
I’m going to need more research, and I’ll definitely need to get out a pen and pad to tally my fat intake for the rest of the day.