Diet’s Role in Heart Disease

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Your fork can influence your risk of heart disease. While genetics also affect your chances, diet represents one factor you can control.

Here’s what some area experts recommend:

Tips from physician Priyanka Patnaik, medical director with UBMD Family Medicine at UBMD Outpatient Center at Conventus.

• “Heart disease happens because of an accumulation of fat in the arteries. It comes from diet, mainly. Too much saturated fat, like those available in animal products, are taken in by some of the cells that guard our arteries. There’s also inflammation associated with it. It can cause a blockage of the arteries.

• “Control calories overall. In the old days, people used to be involved in agricultural labor and were physically active and burning a lot of calories. If we’re not burning a lot of calories, they all get stored in the body as fat and cause heart disease. All the foods we eat, no matter what kind, if we eat excess in the calories we burn, we’ll gain weight.

• “Eat less processed foods and sodium. People think only of added salt, but processed deli meats — like cold cuts — are full of salt.

• “Try cooking green vegetables or meat by baking or grilling, not frying.”

Tips from Becky O’Connor, Eat Smart NY project manager for Western New York with Cornell Cooperative Extension Erie County.

• “We look to the USDA My Plate to start. It shows how we can make our diet really healthy.

• “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. They have a lot of vitamins and minerals to reduce high blood pressure, keep blood vessels in good shape, and they’re full of fiber, which keeps you full longer. They also help reduce inflammation.

• “Make half your grains whole grains.

• “Eat a variety of lean protein and have fish and non-animal sources in there.

• “Drink low-fat or no-fat dairy.

• “Processed foods and those high in fat, salt and sugar we should avoid. That’s hard for a lot of people.

• “Even small changes can make a difference, whether adding vegetables to a pasta sauce or choosing an apple instead of chips from the vending machine. It all adds up in the long run.

• “For protein choices, reduce intake of red meat. Choose lean protein no matter what. Choose lean red meat, and if you’re eating poultry, make sure there’s no skin on it. How you prepare it makes a big difference. Choose protein options that are baked, grilled or roasted, not fried.

• “You should vary your protein routine. Eat fish one time a week, maybe a meatless Monday. It’s good for your heart and your wallet. Replace some red meat with some beans, such as in tacos. Or swap ground turkey for ground beef in tacos or chili.

• “I’m a big advocate of whole grains, which are shown to reduce risk for heart disease. They taste a lot better now than they used to. Overlooked whole grains include brown rice, whole grain pasta, or try to make it half and half if you don’t like the taste. Cereals are a good place to look.

• “Check labels. Just because it says ‘whole grain’ doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Look for whole oats or grains as the first ingredients.

• “Practice portion control. Don’t stop eating your favorite foods, but make sure you’re eating a reasonable portion.”

In general, foods with more processing tend to contain fewer nutrients and more sodium, fat and calories.

“Dietary and Policy Priorities for Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Obesity: A Comprehensive Review” by Dariush Mozaffarian, published by the American Heart Association, states: “Evidence-informed dietary priorities include increased fruits, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, vegetable oils, yogurt, and minimally processed whole grains; and fewer red meats, processed (eg., sodium-preserved) meats, and foods rich in refined grains, starch, added sugars, salt, and trans fat.

“More investigation is needed on the cardiometabolic effects of phenolics, dairy fat, probiotics, fermentation, coffee, tea, cocoa, eggs, specific vegetable and tropical oils, vitamin D, individual fatty acids, and diet-microbiome interactions.

“Little evidence to date supports the cardiometabolic relevance of other popular priorities: eg, local, organic, grass-fed, farmed/wild, or non–genetically modified.”

For tips on portion and other aspects of healthful eating, visit