The Healthy Food Guide team believe that making small diet and lifestyle changes brings the best long-term gains. We look at the science behind the headlines and promote a balanced way of eating.

We know that simple lifestyle changes can help prevent heart disease, but now scientific research has discovered we can also help reverse existing damage.

A remedy for damaged hearts has never been so sorely needed. Every three minutes, someone in the UK dies from a heart attack – and around 30% of all heart attacks are fatal, according to the British Heart Foundation. Moreover, there are currently seven million people in the UK living with cardiovascular disease (CVD), an umbrella term for all diseases of the heart and circulation. This includes coronary heart disease (CHD), as well as stroke, heart failure, cardiomyopathy and atrial fibrillation.

Many of us have at least one risk factor for CHD and most of these risk factors are lifestyle related. They’re simply a result of the everyday choices we make about what we eat and drink, how much we exercise and whether or not we smoke.

We make these choices without much conscious effort and often put off actioning any necessary changes because we’re too busy. And yet, over time, making unhealthy choices each and every day is leading to conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight. It’s in our power to change these habits, though – and our health can benefit hugely as a result.

Can we undo the damage?
Medication to control cholesterol and blood pressure, plus surgery (including cardiac stents and bypass surgery) are the mainstays of treatment and, often, are lifesavers. But research by US cardiologist Dr Dean Ornish, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, has shown that a programme of diet, exercise and stress management can reverse heart damage. In the 1990s, Dr Ornish devised an intensive year-long lifestyle modification programme for heart disease sufferers. The Lifestyle Heart Trial looked at the impact of a very low fat vegetarian diet, moderate exercise, no smoking and stress management training.

The participants that made these changes did not take cholesterol-lowering medications. The results were impressive: not only did the programme lead to a 91% reduction in the number of chest pains reported, but it also found a 4.5% reduction of the narrowing of coronary arteries after a year, and a 7.9% improvement when followed up five years later.

By contrast, the arteries of heart disease sufferers in the control group, who received standard medical treatment including cholesterol-lowering medications, had almost a 28% increased narrowing of their arteries after
five years. They also experienced more than twice as many cardiac events, such as heart attack.

Wider health benefits
Since the initial research, scientific studies have revealed that the Ornish approach can benefit more than our hearts. Studies have found that the lifestyle changes can also reverse type 2 diabetes and early stage prostate cancer, plus change gene expression in over 500 genes – this means that if you’ve inherited ‘at risk’ genes, you can change how they act in terms of disease. The programme can even lengthen telomeres (the ends of our chromosomes), which are crucial to how our bodies age. The Undo It Programme Undo It with Ornish is the new name for Dr Ornish’s heart programme. It’s the first lifestyle method that’s scientifically proven to reverse heart disease, and it does so by improving four key areas:

  • Revising dietary choices
  • Increasing daily exercise
  • Improving support from family and friends
  • Decreasing stress

Undo It With Ornish involves 18 four-hour group sessions and, unlike most quick-fix regimes, 88% of participants are still following it after a year**. Its aim is to reduce the need for medication in people with diabetes, reduce stroke risk, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce weight and alleviate depression — all factors known to cut the risk of heart disease. Although the programme isn’t available in the UK, you can read Dr Ornish’s book, The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, Gain Health .

How to put it into practice
The Ornish programme follows many of the same healthy eating guidelines that are recommended in the UK. It’s a vegetarian diet based on limiting ‘bad’ carbs and fats, and eating lots of good ones instead. This means eating foods as they’re found naturally, rather than in a processed form. The most dramatic element is that no more than 10% of daily calories should come from fat. This is far fewer than the current UK guidelines, which recommend no more than a third of our calories should come from fat, an amount most adults now achieve, although our intake of calories from saturates remains too high.

The Ornish programme focuses on four key lifestyle areas…

1. What you eat and drink Eat a plant-based diet of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes and small amounts of nuts and seeds. If you’re not quite ready to go all-out vegetarian, then just cutting down on animal foods and incorporating some plant-based meals is a good start.

2. How much you move Add regular exercise into your routine. The UK Department of Health recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (anything that gets you slightly out of breath) per week. More intense exercise or strength training, two or three times a week, will bring added benefits. Turn to p86 to read
about the benefits of hula hooping.

3. How much love and support you have Having people around you who care about you is a key component of good health. Allowing their love and support into your life will help you to become healthier and happier.

4. How you deal with stress Better stress management is key to health. Dr Ornish encourages learning relaxation and stress- management techniques.

Why do things go wrong for our hearts?
‘The major cause of heart disease is a build-up of fatty deposits inside the artery walls, known as atherosclerosis,’ says Dr Sam Firoozi, consultant cardiologist at St Anthony’s Hospital in Surrey. ‘These gradually clog the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart.
‘For your heart to beat, it needs a constant supply of oxygen from the lungs, which flows into the coronary arteries that feed the heart muscle. When there is narrowing or blockage of these arteries, blood flow and oxygen to the heart is reduced, causing angina or chest pain. If the flow stops completely, you will have a heart attack. If not treated quickly, this can result in permanent damage to the heart muscle,’ says Dr Firoozi. Lower your risk There are, of course, a number of risk factors that can’t be changed, including age, gender and genetic disposition. But there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of atherosclerosis, and even reverse this narrowing of the arteries if you already have it.

The British Heart Foundation lists these ‘modifiable’ risk factors:

  • Smoking – both active and passive
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Being overweight

‘Physical inactivity, depression and a lack of social interaction and support have also been linked with an increased risk of heart disease,’ adds Dr Firoozi.

Assess your risk further and get more information at here on The British Heart Foundation website.

**Article published in August 2016, Healthy Food Guide.