Heart disease can generally be traced to a single cause: Narrowing of the coronary arteries. This is a medical condition called “coronary atherosclerosis” which occurs when your arteries become congested and clogged with cholesterol. If this condition becomes severe enough, you will have a heart attack.
Fortunately, regular exercise, such as running, greatly reduces the risk of heart disease. But even though running (or any vigorous exercise) does improve the health of your heart and increases longevity, running alone can’t protect everyone from a heart attack.
Runners can and do get heart disease. Runners—even veteran marathoners–die from heart disease, just like the rest of the population.
The greatest risk factor that you can do something about is your diet because of its effect on the blood-cholesterol levels. Again, exercise helps, but only to a point. Even dedicated runners who are considered exceptionally fit and lean can develop atherosclerosis and suffer heart attacks.
Clearly, the key is maintaining a proper blood-cholesterol level. Diet is only part of the equation. Most of your blood cholesterol comes from your liver which produces about three or four times as much as most Americans eat in a day.
Our bodies make all the cholesterol we need. When your doctor takes a blood test to measure your cholesterol, he/she is measuring the amount of circulating cholesterol in your blood—the blood cholesterol level. And approximately 85 percent of that is produced by your body which the remainder coming from your diet.
So basically, diet is a minor source of blood cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is not the same as blood cholesterol. Blood cholesterol is the main cause of clogged arteries and how much cholesterol you get from foods is only one of many factors that determines your blood cholesterol level.
What you eat plays a role, but the most important factor in determining your blood-cholesterol level is your parents. That’s right. Family history is the key risk factor in coronary artery disease and accounts for the reason why some people with good diets and who exercise regularly have high cholesterol levels, while some sedentary people with poor diets have low levels.
But diet still plays a significant role. Within the limits set by your genetic makeup, you can alter your blood-cholesterol levels and reduce your chances of developing heart disease by changing your diet. You can’t change your parents, but you can modify your diet into a heart-healthy diet.
Here are some positive steps you can take for a heart-healthy diet. Adopting such a regiment while maintaining your regular running schedule will decrease your total cholesterol and reduce your chances of heart disease:
1. Eat fewer saturated fats and more polyunsaturates. The typical American takes in as much as 40 percent of total calories in the form of fats—and more than half of that is saturated fats. Saturated fat and trans fat are the bad kind. They usually come from milk, meat and processed foods. A far healthier ratio would be to reduce fat consumption to 30 percent of your diet and limiting 10 percent or less to saturated fats. To accomplish this, eat less red meat and drink less milk. If you eat red meat, trim all visible fat away before eating. Switch from whole milk and ice cream to skim milk and low-fat yogurt. Use polyunsaturated oils for cooking and salads. Eat fewer baked goods.
2. Consider a vegetarian, plant-based diet. Vegetarians generally have lower levels of blood cholesterol and a lower risk of heart disease than the general population. Vegetarians who subsist entirely on plant-based diets have extremely low levels of blood cholesterol. Regardless of your age, it’s never too late to switch to this type of heart-health diet. If switching to an entirely plant-based diet is too radical a step, you can improve your blood cholesterol by substituting fish and skinless chicken for red meat and reducing your consumption of fatty foods. In recent years, there has been a decline in the number of deaths from heart disease which many researchers attribute to a lower national consumption of red meat.
3. Use more olive oil. Studies have shown that men in Italy and Greece—where olive oil makes up a large percentage of the total fat intake—have lower rates of heart disease than men who eat diets high in saturated and trans fats, like in the United States. Research has proven that diets high in monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil) are effective in lowering blood cholesterol.
4. Include more fiber in your diet. There are certain types of dietary fiber that can reduce your blood-cholesterol levels significantly. But it has to be the right kind of fiber and not simply wheat bran. It must be the water-soluble fibers found in oat bran, apples, dried beans and peas that will help.
By taking these steps and continuing to run, you can reverse coronary artery disease. It can be done, but you should first check with your doctor. And then you need regular check of your blood-cholesterol levels to make sure the dietary changes are working.
Different people respond differently to dietary and exercise changes, but these changes have worked in many high-risk, overweight people. The key is you must be willing to make a change—and stick with it. Dietary intervention works, but only if you make it a lifestyle change (including exercise) that you are willing to maintain.