Heart disease accounts for one out of every four deaths in America annually. Specifically, heart attacks kill over 350,000 people per year in the U.S. The leading causes of heart disease include high levels of triglycerides and cholesterol, which can be prevented by adopting a plant-based and whole-grain diet, among other changes.
It's important to note that I am not a medical professional. However, my family has a history of heart disease, and I've been on a journey to discover how to prevent heart attacks naturally - for myself and for others. The information in this article was compiled from multiple sources, most notably the book, How Not to Die, by Michael Greger, MD. If you want to extend your lifespan in a healthy way, I strongly suggest reading the book here. And of course, when it comes to your heart, always consult a doctor.
Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, refers to all issues and conditions that result in blocked blood vessels or arteries. The way this typically happens is that high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (fats like trans and saturated fats), leave plaque deposits on the walls of your veins over time. This causes your blood vessels to tighten and constrict, making it harder to pump blood through the pathways and causing a tear or clot in key arteries that prevents oxygen-rich blood from moving through the heart.
Cardiovascular disease can also occur when high blood pressure causes strain on the heart as blood traveling at high speeds damages the wall or valves and results in heart-related disease as well as death. People with narrow passageways due to plaque buildup as well as those with naturally high blood pressure like people with hypertension can be affected in this way.
The most common type of heart disease is a heart attack, but other types include things that affect your heart’s rhythm or the muscle itself. Combined, heart disease accounts for the most deaths in the U.S. annually. Because heart attacks are the most common, accounting for roughly half of all cardiovascular-related deaths, we’ll focus most of this article on heart attacks. Luckily, preventative measures that stop heart attacks from happening also stop other types of heart disease.
So what are these preventative measures, you ask? No, it's not a wonder pill, but actually a healthy, plant-based diet, rather than the standard American diet (SAD) full of animal products and processed foods with added sugars high in cholesterol and triglyceride fats. What's more, because your body can heal itself, eating a heathy, plant-based diet and giving yourself a rest from the typical SAD western diet not only prevents heart attacks but can actually give your body time to reverse signs of heart disease altogether.
Heart attacks are very real, and because it accounts for nearly half of all heart-related deaths annually, there's a good chance you'll die of a heart attack, too. With this in mind, it’s important to take preventative measures now, regardless of age, to stop and even reverse heart attacks from happening. However, there are many myths out there regarding what causes heart disease and how to stop it, and it's important to get these out of the way first.
Let’s discuss these myths so we can better design preventative strategies later:
Many people believe that age is a direct determinant of heart-related disease. However, correlation doesn’t always equal causation, and while it’s true that older people typically die of heart attacks more often when compared to younger people, assuming that the underlying cause of heart disease is age is a misnomer.
For example, studies such as The China Study have shown that it’s eating habits more so than age than dictates heart disease. In this early 1980s study, researchers observed the lifestyle choices of rural Chinese citizens in the Guizhou province, most notably their eating habits. They found that over the span of three years, not a single person under the age of 65 died from heart disease, far lower than people of the same age in America eating the standard American diet (SAD).
Another study conducted in the 1930s and 40s found that Ugandans in Africa also died much less frequently from heart disease than their American counterparts. For example, of 632 Americans autopsied in the study, researchers found that 136 had died from heart attacks. By contrast, autopsies were done on 632 Ugandans of the exact same age, and not one heart attack was found. Unfortunately, as much of Africa has been westernized and adopted more SAD diets, risk of heart attacks has also increased.
What’s more, a 1953 study published in the Journal of American Medicine found that 77% of American soldiers autopsied in the Korean war with an average age around 22 had visible evidence of plaque buildup in their coronary arteries, a leading sign of heart disease. Later studies conducted on the matter found that accidental death victims between three and 26 years old had fatty streaks in their veins - the first indication of heart disease.
Rather than age, what these studies show us that the root cause of heart disease is our lifestyle choices, specifically what we eat and how we exercise. It’s not that people in developing countries are born with a lower probability of getting a heart attack, but rather that their diet throughout their life protects them against heart disease over time. When people in America die of a heart attack, it’s not age, it’s typically their lifestyle choices catching up with them, specifically the prolonged consumption of animal products and processed foods with added sugars high in triglycerides and cholesterol.
Ok, this one might be the most controversial myth on this list. Yes, you can probably find studies that link your family history or sex as a leading indicator of heart-related risks. However, while it may seem like more men die of heart attacks than women and that heart disease may run in the family, this actually isn’t entirely true.
According to William C. Roberts, Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, the only critical indicator and risk factor of heart disease is your cholesterol levels, specifically LDL or “bad” cholesterol. LDL deposits cholesterol directly onto your arteries and is the underlying cause of most, if not all, heart-related diseases. In fact, studies have shown that among heart attack victims, levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood is directly related to the amount of plaque they had built up in their coronary arteries.
This is because LDL cholesterol is the "vehicle" in which fatty deposits comprised of things like trans fats and saturated fats accumulate in your arteries. So, rather than genetics or sex, you should be more worried about your relative levels of cholesterol, especially LDL.
Optimal LDL cholesterol levels are typically between 50 - 70 mg/dL, with total cholesterol levels around 150 mg/dL. Unfortunately, average Americans have total cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL or higher, mainly due to consumption of meat, animal products, and junk food high in trans fats, saturated fats, and dietary cholesterol.
Instead of checking your DNA, family history, or the organ between your legs, we should be more focused on our levels of LDL and overall cholesterol, in addition to our triglyceride intake. This more so than genetics or sex is a leading indicator of your risk of heart attacks, and lowering it is a surefire way to reduce your risk.
I’ll be honest, I bought into this one, too. In fact, I have a jar full of fish oil pills in my cupboard right now. However, as much as we all wish preventing heart disease was as easy as popping a few pills, we should know by now that this isn’t the answer.
Thanks to the DART trial in the 1980s, people have believed for years that omega-3 fats found in fish oil can help prevent heart attacks and other heart-related diseases. Unfortunately, this famous trial was followed up with an even larger DART-2 trial, which discovered the exact opposite results to be true. Other subsequent studies have supported the fact that omega-3 fats are not proven to help prevent heart disease, so save your money and stop buying the supplement.
Rather than swallowing a few pills, the best way to prevent heart attacks and other heart-related diseases is to eat a healthy diet low in "bad" cholesterol and fats. The most common offenders of high triglycerides and cholesterol are animal products like meat and dairy, as well as processed foods with added sugars like candy and soda. If we want to avoid a heart attack, we have to largely avoid these types of foods.
I’m sure you can tell by now that it’s largely your lifestyle choices that increase or decrease your chances of dying from heart disease like a heart attack. I know this isn’t the sexiest answer, but it’s the correct one. To help you make better lifestyle choices, I’ve listed out the top causes of heart disease, starting with the most important or most common reason. However, many of the causes below are inextricably linked, and in order to stop one, you’ll have to stop the other.
Here are the leading causes of heart disease:
Stated above, LDL cholesterol or “bad” cholesterol is the number one leading indicator and cause of heart attacks and heart-related death. LDL cholesterol levels increase when trans fats, saturated fats, and to a lesser extent dairy-based cholesterol are consumed via animal products and processed foods with added sugars, depositing plaque on your coronary arteries and constricting the flow of blood.
Studies show that people whose diet is made up of unprocessed vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains have a much lower risk of heart disease when compared to people on the standard American diet (SAD). These people typically have LDL cholesterol levels between 50 - 70 mg/dL, and overall cholesterol levels around 150 mg/dL, meaning that if you want to reduce heart attacks, get your LDL levels at or below 70 mg/dL. By contrast, the average American has LDL levels above 100 mg/dL and total cholesterol levels at or above 200 mg/dL, and climbing.
If you want to reduce your LDL cholesterol levels as well as your risk of heart disease, reduce your intake of trans and saturated fats, as well as sodium and cholesterol found in dairy. In fact, dietary changes have been found to lower cholesterol just as effectively as pharmaceutical drugs like statin, but without many of the risks. Of course, this means you’ll have to cut out most animal products and junk food, but if the situation is life and death, why not start now?
Foods high in trans fats and saturated fats, as well as added sugars, are a leading cause of high LDL cholesterol levels and plaque deposits on your arteries. Most trans fats and saturated fats are found in animal products such as meat and refined dairy, as well as junk food with a lot of added sugar and fat. In fact, it’s the trans and saturated fats themselves that cause cholesterol levels to rise, and LDL cholesterol to deposit plaque on your arteries.
Unfortunately for those of us on the standard American diet (SAD), this isn’t a case of keeping trans and saturated fats at a specific percentage of your overall caloric intake like you would with carbs or protein. No, studies have shown that the optimal amount of these fats are zero. Yup, you heard it - if you want to prevent heart disease, stop eating trans fats and saturated fats altogether, meaning you should stop eating meat and processed junk food.
Of course, this may seem hard or even impossible, and you’re not alone. I love steak, bacon, and almost any kind of animal meat you’d eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. So, even though zero is best, try to cut back on these meats and processed junk food so your intake of trans and saturated fats are minimized, even if they aren’t removed altogether.
The human body has been known to regenerate and actually reverse signs of heart disease. This means that perhaps you cut down meat and other trans and saturated fat consumption to 1-2 days per week, giving your body time to heal itself in the process. For example, I try to stay away from meat or dairy during the week and then reward myself with a "cheat day" over the weekend.
Endotoxins are bacterial toxins found in meat and other animal products that cause inflammation in the arteries, resulting in stiff blood passageways and chronic, low-level inflammation. This persistent inflammation, if not given time to subside, can result in higher blood pressure as well as blood clots or artery tears over time.
Endotoxins enter your bloodstream when you consume food such as meat, even if it’s cooked. In fact, endotoxins aren’t killed by high cooking temperatures, stomach acid, or digestive enzymes. These toxins end up in your intestines after consumption and are carried by saturated fats through the gut wall into your blood, causing inflammation of your arteries.
Endotoxins are a leading cause of angina attacks because effects are immediate, resulting in chest pain, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, and the inability to take part in physical activity. However, positive signs are just as immediate if you stop eating things like meat and other animal products. Studies show that angina attacks can be reduced by as much as 91% after three weeks of adopting a plant-based diet, versus an increase of 181% if diet remains the same.
Animal products like meat and dairy, as well as processed junk food with added sugars or harmful food dye, are the leading causes of high LDL cholesterol, high trans and saturated fats, as well as inflammatory endotoxins in your blood. For this reason, it’s important to discuss these foods on their own, even though they are the root cause of many other leading causes of heart disease.
If you want to lower your risk of heart disease by reducing your cholesterol levels, reducing bad fats such as trans and saturated fats, as well as avoid endotoxins in your bloodstream, you’ll have to largely cut out meat, dairy, and junk food. Bummer, am I right? But, when you’re gambling with your life, seems like the choices are pretty clear - at least in principle.
However, this doesn’t mean you have to become a pious and lifelong vegan or vegetarian. Remember, the human body is amazing at regenerating and repairing itself, shown in studies where lifestyle changes have reversed signs of heart disease in patients. What you need to give it, though, is time. Rather than eating meat at every dinner, why not reduce that to 1-2 times per week? Instead of eating a ham sandwich for lunch, what if you replace it with a salad?
We’ll go into this in more detail below, but if you give your body a few days to heal in between injecting it with cholesterol, bad fats, and processed sugars, you’ll be better off than if you didn’t. Of course, the best way to avoid heart attacks and other heart diseases is to avoid these foods entirely, but life is all about balance, and you should aim for a long, healthy, and happy life, not one where you live a long time but hate what you do each day to achieve that longevity.
Smoking and stimulant drugs such as cocaine or Adderall have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. This is mainly due to the fact that it increases your resting heart rate, resulting in higher blood pressure. This high blood pressure can damage the valves or walls of your heart, as well as constrict and inflame your arteries, closing your blood passageways.
This one is pretty easy - stop smoking and doing drugs. Of course, like I said before, life is all about balance, and I believe that you should do everything in moderation, even moderation. Just be conscious of the fact that when you take part in these things socially, you're momentarily increasing your risk, and you should take long breaks in between to let your body heal.
Lack of physical activity has been shown to result in increased levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, increasing risk of heart attacks and other heart diseases. What's more, people who don't exercise regularly also typically have higher blood pressure, another sign of eventual heart disease. To combat this, make sure you're exercising at least 3-4 days per week for 60 - 90 minutes, along with daily walks (especially on days you don't work out).
People with diabetes don't produce enough insulin in the pancreas, causing increased levels of sugar in the bloodstream. This, over time, can result in plaque buildup in your arteries, eventually resulting in heart-related complications, including death. If you have diabetes, I recommend consulting your doctor, although eating healthy and exercising has been shown to be a natural deterrent for diabetes.
Preventing heart disease isn’t rocket science. All it takes are conscious lifestyle changes to diet and exercise that you can stick to over time. However, making these changes cold turkey is hard, and any step in the right direction is a positive one. For this reason, I recommend becoming either a weekday vegetarian or vegan or adopt what’s called a “flexitarian”, where you eat predominantly fruits, veggies, and whole grains, with pre-planned flex days throughout the week where you eat lean meat like turkey.
The point is that you shouldn’t try to become a pious vegan if that’s going to prevent you from making any changes in the first place. Instead, try to do more right than wrong, and do your best to string together days of healthy eating habits with exercise to give your body time to heal and regenerate, along with the occasional cheat day where you enjoy the finer things in life.
To help, here’s how to prevent or reverse signs of heart attacks:
The number one way to avoid heart disease is to eat the right things. This can not only prevent long-term heart disease, but actually reverse signs of plaque buildup in your arteries as well as reduce short-term issues like angina. Unfortunately for most of us, the types of food most likely to cause a heart attack or other kind of heart disease include meat and other animal products such as dairy, as well as processed junk food.
This is because they're the largest offenders of endotoxins, trans and saturated fats, as well as LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Over time, this will create plaque on your coronary arteries, restricting the flow of blood and causing either a clot or a tear. To prevent this, it’s important to replace these food-types with natural fruits, veggies, nuts, and organic whole grains low in cholesterol, endotoxins, and bad fats, as well as high in fiber that can soak up bad cholesterol and antioxidants that can slow aging.
As you can see, not all food is created equal, and when thinking about eating healthy, it’s important to bucket food into three broad categories:
This is because processed foods either have reduced nutritional value when compared to their organic counterparts, or that processed foods have chemical additives that can do more harm than good. The idea here is to eat more of the “great” foods, limit the “ok” foods, and avoid the “bad” foods at all costs. However, with a strict diet, it’s ok to work in a cheat day or two - it’s all about a balanced approach to loving life while living longer.
In the book, How Not to Die, author Michael Greger, MD suggests following a checklist of 12 items, known as his “daily dozen”. The idea here is if you generally follow these guidelines for daily servings, you’ll be well on your way to a healthy lifestyle that reduces the risk of heart attacks and other heart diseases.
Here’s the list and how many servings you should have daily:
Of course, the one thing you don’t see here is animal products, such as meat or dairy. While it’s ok to splurge every once in a while, make sure you stick to the above bullet points for most of your meals if you want to prevent heart disease like a heart attack.
To help you get an understanding of how to best adjust your diet, I’ve listed what I typically eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Note that I eat this way from Sunday through Friday, then relax and eat what I want if I’m going out for dinner Friday night or on Saturday. Overall, choose meals that will make it easiest for you to follow through on this dietary change, and I strongly suggest meal prep to make it even easier to make good decisions.
Here’s what I eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner:
While many of the foods above are rich in both fiber and antioxidants, it’s important to point out the necessity for eating both of these things. Antioxidants fight free radicals in your body, while fiber helps soak up LDL cholesterol. The best places to get both of these things are naturally via the foods you eat, such as fruits, green veggies, as well as herbs, spices, and psyllium husks.
Fiber has been known to soak up bad LDL cholesterol and lower overall cholesterol levels. Luckily, many good foods like fruits and veggies are high in fiber. Other places you can get your fiber is by adding something like Metamucil or psyllium husks to your diet. When trying to consume more fiber, look for both soluble as well as non-soluble fiber, as a combination of both is best for lowering your levels of cholesterol. For example, I typically add fiber to my protein shakes post-workout as well as get fiber naturally through my diet.
One of the best places to get antioxidants is via fruits, specifically berries like blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and goji berries. All have powerful antioxidants that stop oxidation in your blood, which can help your body from breaking down or aging and giving it more of a chance to fend off heart disease. Veggies also can be rich in antioxidants. A good rule of thumb is that the more colorful the fruit or vegetable, the more antioxidants it has.
However, another great place to find antioxidants in herbs and spices such as turmeric, basil, curry powder, pepper, parsley, thyme, cinnamon, and more. In fact, with many herbs and spices, the taste themselves are the antioxidants, much like how the color of fruits and veggies hold antioxidants. While berries typically have more antioxidants, spices are a great way to boost your antioxidant intake simply by adding it to your dinner.
As you probably already know, an active lifestyle is paramount to heart health. Think of activity as a “positive stressor” on the heart. When you work out, go for a run, or take a hike, you’re working out your heart muscle much like you would any other muscle. Over time, your heart will become stronger the same as your biceps become stronger when you do more arm curls.
The way I view it, when I exert myself while working out, I’m pushing blood through my arteries and “cleaning out” any plaque that may be building up. Now, this might not be totally accurate, but it’s a good image to keep in your mind the next time you want to skip the gym. The more you exert yourself in a healthy way, the stronger your heart and arteries will become and the lower the risk of heart disease.
Further, working out and maintaining an active lifestyle can reduce obesity, which lowers the risk of LDL cholesterol as well as trans and saturated fats. However, keep in mind that even fit people could be eating more than their share of bad cholesterol and fats, so don’t think that just because you’re skinny you can eat whatever you want. Still, maintaining an active lifestyle can certainly help reduce the risk of heart disease.
According to many experts, an “active lifestyle” is one where you walk for at least 20 minutes a day. To me, this is not active. Instead, focus on 60 - 90 minutes of exercise 3 - 4 times a week, and take a long walk at least on the days you don’t exercise, even though taking a walk every day would be ideal.
While the science is still coming in, more and more studies are finding that using a sauna regularly can reduce all-cause mortality, including heart attacks and heart-related diseases. For example, 30-minutes of sauna use has been seen to result in lower blood pressure and artery "stiffness" immediately after the sauna session. Longer-term, elevated heart rates as a result of sauna use is thought to be a positive stressor on your heart, simulating moderate exercise. I try to use the sauna three times per week.
Smoking and stimulants such as cocaine or Adderall can increase your blood pressure, both near-term as well as long-term. This can cause unnecessary stress on your heart muscle and its coronary arteries, potentially ending in disaster. If you’re trying to reduce the chance of heart disease, it’s important that you stop smoking or taking stimulants on a regular basis - a cup of coffee is fine.
Like smoking or stimulants, stress can also lead to health issues, such as increased blood pressure. If you work in a stressful environment or feel yourself stressed out easily, chances are this might be increasing your risk of heart disease. To combat this, practice mindfulness meditation, take up fun hobbies, and nourish yourself with good times with friends and family. Over time, you’ll notice your average levels of stress declining along with your heart rate.
The short answer is that you can stop a heart attack years before one happens through preventative measures. Eating a healthy, plant-based diet and avoiding foods high in cholesterol, trans fats, saturated fats, and added sugars, particularly animal products and processed foods. If you're currently experiencing a heart attack or chest pain, stop reading and seek emergency help immediately for medical attention.
The most common sign of an impending heart attack is chest pain. Additional signs include pain or numbness that spreads to your left arm, as well as dizziness or lightheadedness. There are other signs of an attack, but these are the main symptoms, and usually you'll experience more than one of these at once. If you're feeling chest discomfort and are afraid of a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately.
Chewing aspirin during a suspected heart attack can quickly work to lower your blood pressure and stop further damage to your heart, although it won't reverse the effects of a current heart attack. Those with high risk of heart attacks are also sometimes prescribed daily Aspirin by their doctor to thin their blood over the long-term. However, there are negative side effects from this daily Aspirin regiment, and always consult a medical professional before taking this as a remedy.
In addition to preventing a heart attack, you should also focus on preventing a stroke naturally. Strokes are the third leading cause of natural death in the U.S. and are commonly called "brain attacks" because they're similar to a heart attack for the brain. Often, preventing one can prevent another. For more information, check out this article on how to prevent a stroke.
Let me make it clear again that I'm not a medical professional. However, I've personally been very interested in heart attacks and how to prevent them, reading books, articles, and other resources on how best to stop heart disease in its tracks. This article is a distillation of my research, including the takeaways that I've incorporated into my own life. Overall, following the information above should help lower your overall risk.