By Henry Gould – Feb 5th, 2019
According to the American Heart Association, 48% of adult Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease, be it coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke or high blood pressure. Although a large reason this number shot up was due to recent changes in how high blood pressure was defined, it still serves as a somber reminder that heart disease is the #1 risk of death in the US, and the source of 29% of deaths in Canada.
Some interesting stats I picked up while reading further:
- 9 in 10 Canadians have at least 1 risk factor for heart disease and stroke
- Almost 80% of premature heart disease and stroke cases can be prevented with healthy lifestyle choices
- Unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, unhealthy weight, smoking, stress and alcohol are all major factors in developing heart disease
For so many years, the general consensus in the health world was eating a lot of fat made you fat, clogged your arteries, and was the main cause of heart disease. From the 80’s until very recently, fat was stigmatized as the evil in our diets, causing companies to produce “low fat” items that usually compensated for lack of lipids with excess sugar or other sweeteners. We now know that dietary fat has a much lower impact on clogged arteries than previously thought, and in reality sugar (and the insulin reaction that accompanies) is a much bigger factor. It’s also true that traditionally high fat foods that were stigmatized (butter, steak, lard) were usually eaten in conjunction with carbs or sugar (butter on bread, steak with fries, lard in pastries), so perhaps the focus was on the wrong food group to begin with. After all, in Jan 2018 the BBC ranked the 100 healthiest foods, and pork fat (i.e. lard) came in at #8, sandwiched between swiss chard and beet greens…!
“Lardo di Colonnata” in Tuscany
Here’s what we know as grounded, scientific consensus on fat storage in the body. Insulin (produced by the pancreas) is released in the presence of sugar (glucose, fructose), and then turns these carbohydrates into tryglyceride fats to be stored in fat cells. Thinking in terms of our evolutionary development, abundant sugar was not always available, so the body adapted to store excess carbohydrates as fat. Coming across high sugar foods in nature is rare, and even when they are found (i.e. fruits) a lot of the sugar is locked up into fiber, hence making it harder to get into the bloodstream quickly. Industrialization allowed us to easily refine sugar and add it to everything, which not surprisingly has coincided with massive increases in heart disease.
If you’re a #YardHard regular and live an active lifestyle (> 2.5 hours physical activity per week) that is a big step in preventing heart disease. However, I think an often overlooked part of eating properly is not just whether or not something is “healthy”, but looking at food as the fuel for the activity we do throughout the week.
Training for an Iron Man race means a huge expenditure of energy, and thus requires a huge intake of calories. I remember sitting at Lift Coffee in Whistler during the summer Iron Man series, and a woman from the race was taking a break, gorging on pasta and trail mix before heading back out. Clearly this huge demand for energy necessitated a big carb meal like this during the race, but perhaps on a regular weeknight of minimal training it wouldn’t. Learning to adjust food intake with activity level can be a powerful tool in approaching your health.
Ultimately the scientific evidence suggests regulating insulin (via low sugar / refined carb diet) is one of the strongest ways to prevent heart disease in the first place. This can be tough, as many of the foods we love are loaded with sugar, and we are hardwired to overeat them as an adaptation to the time when we didn’t know when this sugar might be available again.
As well, there is fascinating research that says our gut bacteria can actually influence our cravings. Say you’ve been going a few weeks eating refined carbs and sugar, drinking beer, and not getting much exercise. Over that time, the bacteria in your stomach will start to populate more with those that eat and break down sugar, rather than those that eat other stuff (say, fiber from vegetables). Consequently, these bacteria might then give off chemicals telling the brain it’s craving a chocolate bar, when really the body doesn’t need any more calories to satisfy its needs. Overtime this can perpetuate to the point where the body is constantly craving sugar, and in a world of unlimited access to cheap sugar, it can be hard to say no.
Overall, I’m a firm believer that educating yourself on how the body processes the food you eat will go a long way to informing healthier and more conscious choices over the course of ones lifetime.