Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States for both men and women. According to the American Heart Association, one in five Americans has some form of cardiovascular disease. To put it another way, more than 60 million people suffer from high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, congenital heart disease, or congestive heart failure. Early signs of heart disease (fatty deposits in arteries) can be found in men in their twenties. It’s estimated that if all forms of cardiovascular disease were eliminated, life expectancy would rise by about seven years.
Evidence strongly suggests that our modern diet and lifestyle play major roles in this health crisis since heart attacks were rare occurrences 100 years ago. Dietary factors include high sodium (salt) and excess calories from sugar and animal fat coupled with a lack of essential omega-3 fats found in fish, flaxseed, walnuts, and leafy greens. The typical American diet of fast foods and packaged foods along with cigarette smoking and a sedentary lifestyle is a prescription for a heart attack.
There is a way to eat, however, that drastically lowers the risk of heart disease. A traditional Mediterranean-style diet has been shown to be more effective in treating heart disease than any drug or lifestyle program. It’s a diet that was followed in Greece and Italy during the 1960s. At that time, the population had a heart disease risk that was 90 percent lower than that of the United States. It consisted of seasonally fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, modest amounts of cheese and yogurt daily, fish several times a week (this was pre-mercury scare), but red meat only a few times per month. Olive oil was the principle fat, and red wine was enjoyed in moderation with meals.
More recently, medical researchers have proposed a “polymeal” based on the ability of each of its ingredients to reduce heart disease risk. It consists of fish (four times per week), wine, dark chocolate, fruits, vegetables, almonds, and garlic. According to calculations, the polymeal would reduce cardiovascular events by 76 percent and increase total life expectancy of men by 6.6 years and that of women by 4.8 years. Now that’s a diet I could live with!