American Heart Month

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(HOST) February is American Heart Month, and commentator Dr. Rachel Johnson – Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to EatingWell magazine – tells how science is uncovering close connections among food, inflammation and heart disease.

(JOHNSON) I thought I was up to speed on which healthy habits can help us prevent heart disease, until a few years ago when my University of Vermont colleague Dr. Paula Fives-Taylor rattled my thinking. In a riveting lecture, this professor of microbiology explained that something as simple as flossing your teeth regularly could make a big difference in reducing heart disease risk. That’s when my jaw dropped. She explained that, since flossing keeps plaque-forming bacteria from invading gum tissue, it helps prevent the body’s immune system from launching into defensive mode – a process known as inflammation. Today inflammation is so widely linked to heart disease, many physicians order tests for C-reactive protein, a key marker of inflammation, as routinely as they do cholesterol tests.

We used to think heart disease resulted from fatty plaque deposits in our arteries, like the buildup of rust in a water pipe. But now we know that heart attacks rarely happen simply because of this buildup. Far from being mere "pipes," arteries are active participants in the progress of heart disease. They both attract and harbor cells that release inflammatory substances. Inflammation plays a key role in weakening arterial plaque. This may cause the deposits to rupture; and that can lead to sudden coronary death, heart attack or stroke. So anything you can do to lower your level of inflammation can go a long way toward reducing your risk for heart disease.

Numerous studies show that individual foods and nutrients can either stoke or subdue the inflammatory process. The foods that inflame aren’t new villains: they include saturated fats and trans-fatty acids, along with refined starches and sweets. The anti-inflammatory prescription is a familiar refrain: limit your intake of full-fat animal products and read labels to avoid common trans-fat sources. Instead try to get more of what I call "inflammation soothers." There are foods that help prevent reactions that spark inflammation. The list includes foods high in healthy fats, like extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil, fatty fish like salmon and tuna, nuts and seeds, especially walnuts and flaxseed. A few surprising extras like red wine, cocoa and the spice turmeric have also shown promising anti-inflammatory activity. Phytosterols are cholesterol-lowering plant compounds that are turning up in some brands of yogurt, orange juice, butter-like spreads and granola bars. They may also help reduce inflammation.

But, rather than just concentrating on individual foods, focus on an overall dietary pattern that combines these foods for additive effects. The renowned Mediterranean Diet pattern, which is rich in plant foods and seasoned with olive oil, is one of the many healthy models that fit this description.

You’ve undoubtedly heard this advice before, but now there are new reasons to act on it. Oh yes – and don’t forget to floss.

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