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Eat Real Food to Prevent Heart Disease

Feb 10, 2023 | The Healthy Way Newsletter

Debating whether to buy that cereal?

Or have you fallen (yet again) for the bright packaging and “all-natural” claim?

February is Heart Month, a beautiful time to focus on protecting our hearts. While eating well is one way to prevent heart disease, a healthy diet is more nuanced than avoiding candy bars.

Many staple products, such as breakfast cereals and bread, are marketed as “healthy” while hiding risky ingredients. You may have spent decades believing you’re taking care of yourself when that’s simply untrue.

So how can you ensure you do your part to maintain a heart-healthy diet

Let’s find out!

What are processed foods?

Processed foods are agricultural products that have been modified before preparing or consuming. This includes washing, cutting, canning, freezing, packaging, etc., and adding sugars, salts, fats, and other additives.

NOVA, an international food classification system, categorizes food into:

  • Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: Natural or minimally altered foods (e.g., vegetables, fruits, legumes, eggs, milk, meat, fish, nuts). This is what we call whole foods.
  • Group 2 – Processed culinary ingredients: Substances from whole foods or nature that have been pressed, milled, or refined to cook other foods (e.g., our beloved maple syrup, oil, butter, salt, sugar).
  • Group 3 – Processed foods: Products made by adding salt, sugar, and other group 2 ingredients to group 1 foods to enhance their shelf life, flavour, and texture (e.g., canned goods, cured meats, salted nuts, cheese, fresh bread).
  • Group 4 – Ultra-processed foods: Industrial products made of 5+ ingredients, including sugar, salt, fats, preservatives, colourings, and little to no whole foods. They go through many manufacturing processes to be ready to drink, eat, or heat (e.g., sodas, fruit yogurt, breakfast cereals, energy bars, packaged bread).

Are processed foods bad for you?

Minimally processed products like pre-washed veggies are wholesome and convenient. Frozen fruit is also an excellent option when your favourite fresh fruit is not in season. And using processed ingredients like salt for cooking is ok as long it’s not too much.

Yet, the closer you get to group 4, the higher the health risks. Ultra-processed foods are associated with obesity, diabetes, and hypertension; increased risk of mortality; cancer, depression, and cardiovascular diseases, among other outcomes.

The goal is to hit a balance:

  • Eat the bulk of your diet from unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  • Use processed culinary ingredients sparingly for seasoning and cooking
  • Limit processed foods by reducing portions or complementing whole meals
  • Avoid ultra-processed foods

Signs you’re eating too many processed foods

  • Digestive issues — Elevated sugar in processed foods can disrupt your gut microbiome, causing problems like gas and bloating. 
  • Fatigue and cravings — Processed foods may spike your blood sugar and insulin production, leading to “sugar crashes,” tiredness, hunger, and potential insulin resistance.
  • Swelling and insatiable thirst — Processed foods are typically loaded with salt, which your body tries to balance by retaining water and encouraging you to drink more.
  • Overeating — Wondering why you can’t stop eating the entire bag of chips? Processed foods can be super tasty and harder to resist! Plus, many don’t have much protein or fibre, which make you feel full.
  • Headaches — Processed meats, canned goods, and other processed foods may contain additives like tyramine, which can trigger headaches.

How does processed food affect your heart?

Evidence shows that increasing the consumption of ultra-processed food by 10% (including beverages, fats, meats, sugary products, and salty snacks) is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular (12%), coronary heart (13%), and cerebrovascular diseases (11%). Poor nutritional composition (excess of saturated fats, added sugar and sodium, and low fibre), the “cocktail” of additives, and processing contaminants might all play a role.

Another study claims each additional serving of ultra-processed food after 7.5 daily servings may be linked to an increased risk of hard cardiovascular diseases (coronary death, heart attack, and stroke – 7%), overall cardiovascular diseases (5%), and cardiovascular disease mortality (9%). The study highlights bread, ultra-processed meat, salty snacks, and soft drinks as some of the suspects.

Further research found that ultra-processed foods may be connected with a higher risk of death from cardiovascular diseases, particularly in women. Researchers explain hormonal differences and disparities in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of these conditions could all be involved. 

But why would processed foods damage your heart?

First, many processed foods are high in saturated fats (e.g., dairy, processed meats) and trans fats (e.g., fried and baked goods like frozen fries or pizza). Both can raise your “bad” cholesterol, forming fat deposits in your blood vessels and preventing enough blood flow to your heart and organs. Trans fats are especially dangerous—they also lower your “good” cholesterol, which carries excess cholesterol to your liver to be flushed from your bloodstream.

Processed foods may also be filled with sodium (e.g., bacon, deli meats). While sodium is essential for many body functions, an overload can increase blood flow, elevating your blood pressure and making your heart pump harder. High blood pressure is a major risk for heart disease.

And let’s not forget about sugars. Most processed foods have tons of added sugar (e.g., simple sugars, artificial sweeteners, and syrups that don’t occur naturally). Overeating sugar is associated with high blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol problems, obesity, and diabetes, which are all heart disease risk factors.

I know this is a lot of information to digest, especially if you’re noticing a lot of foods to evict from your kitchen, so let’s boil this down to easy, actionable steps you can carry with you without a notebook.

How to differentiate healthy foods from foods marketed as “healthy”

Tip #1: Read food labels!

Review the “Nutrition Facts” label and watch for saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and sugars. Don’t let the shiny package fool you. Products loaded with these ingredients are not healthy, despite their claims to be “organic,” “light,” or “natural.”

Look at the serving size and amount per serving to get a clear picture. Ingredients are listed from highest to lowest, so the first ones make up the largest amount of the product.

Tip #2: If you can’t recognize it, it probably isn’t healthy

Most ingredients in processed foods are manufactured compounds you may not have heard of.

Here are some examples to stay away from:

  • Sugars: maltose, sucrose, dextrose, glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, molasses, cane juice, fruit juice concentrate or puree, erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol
  • Trans fats: trans fatty acids, partially hydrogenated oils, hydrogenated oils
  • Other additives: trisodium phosphate, carrageenan, sodium nitrite

Tip #3: Check the source

Check where your product comes from. If it’s from a faraway land, it might have been highly processed to transport and preserve. This is a good rule of thumb for produce—fruits and veggies from local farms tend to be less manipulated and brought straight to the store.

Eat whole foods to prevent heart disease!

The easiest way to eat more whole foods and prevent heart disease is to shop as exclusively as possible at your local farmer’s markets, butcher shops, fisheries, and bakeries.

Ask the farmer about what they spray on and how often. Check in with your butcher or fisherman to learn where the meat or seafood comes from. Go to bakeries that make their flour or buy from local, organic flour mills.

You don’t have to drive up north for real food. Toronto is a bustling place with many options in every neighbourhood! Below are some of our favourite Toronto stops for heart-healthy foods:

Our favourite Toronto farmer's markets
Our favourite Toronto butcher shops
Our favourite Toronto fisheries
Our favourite Toronto bakeries and organic mills

Next steps:

If eating healthy feels overwhelming, or you can’t figure out how to organize it neatly with a busy lifestyle, we’re here to help. While we can’t do it for you, we can integrate a healthy diet into your lifestyle and dietary requirements to make the transition as smooth as possible. Just fill out the form in the button below and we’ll take it from there.

Yours in flavour,
Dr. Elena Krasnov, N.D.
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About Me

I'm Dr. Elena Krasnov, N.D and I've been healing people for decades with my holistic and comprehensive approach to health.

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