How Does Holistic Nutrition Affect Cardiovascular Health?

top way to improve CV health with food

As a health, fitness, wellness or nutrition professional, you will want to learn about a holistic approach to food, nutrition, shopping for groceries. You will deliver better results when you completely understand your client’s relationship with food.

Unhealthy Fats

Starting in 1975, government recommendations, food advertisers, medical doctors, and nutrition experts advocated a diet low in fat. What this fad failed to address was the difference between low-quality fats contained in junk foods and naturally occurring high-quality fats that can be beneficial to health.

Remember the low-fat craze that swept the nation in the early ‘90s? Every cookie, cracker, and cake variety came in a low-fat version. Yet, Americans continued to get fat. We became a nation of fat fearers, believing that eating fat made us fat. The truth is that our bodies need fat, and knowing what kinds of fats to consume and what kinds to avoid is not complicated.

Your body needs fat to nourish your heart, brain, nerves, hormones, and every cell. Fat is good for the health of your hair, skin, and nails too. Studies conducted in the 1970s of the native Greenland Eskimo population showed that despite their high intake of fats—about 70% of their diet—they had very low rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The main source of fats in their diet came from wild, marine foods—a far cry from what’s on most supermarket shelves.

Body fat storage is not necessarily related to the fat consumed. When eating the wrong kinds of fats, the body cannot create healthy cells, leading to nutritional deprivation. Your client could be overweight and still undernourished, especially if they are eating chemical-rich, artificial junk foods. Many people on low-fat diets feel hungry all the time and consequently, overeat. Did you ever have a client say that they set out to have a few low-fat or fat-free cookies and end up eating the whole box? That’s because there is nothing in them that makes us feel satiated. The brain doesn’t get the “stop eating” message. The incoming fat is part of the signaling method to help us feel full. Fat also makes food taste good. It carries flavors and smells more than carbohydrates or protein do. Cooks combine spices with fat or oil, such as butter or olive oil for this very reason. They know it makes their food taste great.

The four basic types of fat found in food are saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans-fats. All fats, or lipids, are composed of fatty acids, which are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms filling the bonds.

The chemical composition of the fatty acid chains determines the type of fat. Saturated fats are found mainly in animal foods and tropical oils, like coconut and palm oils. The fatty acid chain is highly stable and straight shaped, so these fats are solid or semi-solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats have a double bond, making them more flexible, so they tend to be liquid at room temperature and solid when refrigerated. Examples of monounsaturated fats include olive, sesame, and avocado oils. Polyunsaturated fats are considered essential because the body cannot make them and must rely on food sources to get them. The two polyunsaturated fatty acids found most frequently in food are omega-6 and omega-3. These fats have two or more double bonds, which makes them more reactive and unstable, especially at high temperatures. They also remain liquid even when refrigerated and can form free radicals when they are heated during extraction and processing or when used for cooking. These free radicals can initiate disease. Examples include corn, soy, safflower, and sunflower oils. So, although some of these oils seem healthy, they quickly become unhealthy when heated.

Trans-fats are found in many processed junk foods, frozen foods, margarine, French fries, donuts, and other baked goods. On labels, these fats are listed as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. Trans-fats are artificially produced by combining hydrogen with polyunsaturated oils—a process called hydrogenation. Consuming hydrogenated oil can interfere with your body’s natural processes, leading to many health problems including increased risk of coronary death.

The FDA now requires all packaged foods to list trans-fats on their labels. But many people are unknowingly consuming trans-fats when they eat out. Thanks to an elevated awareness, New York City became the first major U.S. city to ban trans- fats in restaurants and fast-food chains in 2007. Other cities and local governments are following suit. Many large chains are now voluntarily switching their cooking oils, including Denny’s, Burger King, KFC, T.G.I. Friday’s, and Starbucks. Even the Walt Disney Company introduced new food guidelines that eliminate trans-fats from food served at its parks by the end of 2007. Many alternatives to trans-fats are now on the market. As more consumers speak out on this issue, more restaurants and fast-food companies will get the message. You, too, can make changes in your community by talking about this issue to local restaurant owners and elected officials.

To beat the overall fat-fearing mentality, work on substituting good fats for bad fats. Choosing healthy portions of good fats can help you lose weight, increase your energy, boost your immunity, and optimize digestion. Even saturated fats are needed to keep the body functioning. Coconut oil is one example of a good, saturated fat source. It can help with weight loss because the body converts it quickly to energy. It also contains lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid found in only one other naturally occurring place: human breast milk. Coconut oil is also more stable than other oils and can stand up to heat, which makes it a great choice for cooking. Other natural sources of good fats include avocados, olive oil, raw nuts, sesame and hemp seeds and cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna.

Unsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature, are considered beneficial fats because they can improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and play several other beneficial roles. Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in foods from plants, such as vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.

There are two types of “good” unsaturated fats:

Monounsaturated fats, found in high concentrations in:

  • Olive, peanut, and canola oils
  • Avocados
  • Nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans
  • Seeds such as pumpkin and sesame seeds
  • Polyunsaturated fats are found in high concentrations in
  • Sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils
  • Walnuts
  • Flax seeds
  • Fish
  • Canola oil – though higher in monounsaturated fat, it’s also a good source of polyunsaturated fat.

Omega-3 fats are an important type of polyunsaturated fat. The body can’t make these, so they must come from food.

An excellent way to get omega-3 fats is by eating fish 2-3 times a week.

Good plant sources of omega-3 fats include flax seeds, walnuts, and canola or soybean oil.

Higher blood omega-3 fats are associated with a lower risk of premature death among older adults, according to a study by HSPH faculty.

Most people don’t eat enough healthful unsaturated fats. The American Heart Association suggests that 8-10 percent of daily calories should come from polyunsaturated fats, and there is evidence that eating more polyunsaturated fat—up to 15 percent of daily calories—in place of saturated fat can lower heart disease risk.

Researchers analyzed 60 trials that examined the effects of carbohydrates and various fats on blood lipid levels. In trials in which polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats were eaten in place of carbohydrates, these good fats decreased levels of harmful LDL and increased protective HDL.

Saturated Fats

All foods containing fat have a mix of specific types of fats. Even healthy foods like chicken and nuts have small amounts of saturated fat, though much less than the amounts found in beef, cheese, and ice cream. Saturated fat is mainly found in animal foods, but a few plant foods are also high in saturated fats, such as coconut, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 7 percent of calories.

Cutting back on saturated fat will likely have no benefit, however, if people replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates. Eating refined carbohydrates in place of saturated fat does lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, but it also lowers the “good” HDL cholesterol and increases triglycerides. The net effect is as bad for the heart as eating too much saturated fat.

In the United States, the biggest sources of saturated fat in the diet are:

Pizza with cheese
Whole and reduced-fat milk, butter and dairy desserts Meat products (sausage, bacon, beef, hamburgers) Cookies and other grain-based desserts
A variety of mixed fast-food dishes

Though decades of dietary advice have suggested saturated fat was harmful, in recent years that idea has begun to evolve. Several studies suggest that eating diets high in saturated fat do not raise the risk of heart disease, with one report analyzing the findings of 21 studies that followed 350,000 people for up to 23 years.

Investigators looked at the relationship between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Their controversial conclusion: “There is insufficient evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to conclude that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD.

A well-publicized 2017 study questioned the link between saturated fat and heart disease. The resulting message is that cutting back on saturated fat can be good for health if people replace saturated fat with good fats, especially both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Eating good fats in place of saturated fat lowers the “bad” LDL cholesterol, and it improves the ratio of total cholesterol to “good” HDL cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease.

Eating good fats in place of saturated fat can also help prevent insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. So, while saturated fat may not be as harmful as once thought, evidence clearly shows that unsaturated fat remains the healthiest type of fat.

Percentage of Specific Types of Fat in Common Oils and Fats*


Trans-fatty acids, more commonly called trans-fats, are made by heating liquid vegetable oils in the presence of hydrogen gas and a catalyst, a process called hydrogenation.

Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to become rancid. This process also converts the oil into a solid, which makes them function as margarine or shortening.

Partially hydrogenated oils can withstand repeated heating without breaking down, making them ideal for frying fast foods.

For these reasons, partially hydrogenated oils became a mainstay in restaurants and the food industry – for frying, baked goods, and processed snack foods and margarine.

Partially hydrogenated oil is not the only source of trans-fats in our diets. Trans- fats are also naturally found in beef fat and dairy fat in small amounts.

Trans-fats are the worst type of fat for the heart, blood vessels, and rest of the body because they:

  • Raise bad LDL and lower good HDL
  • Create inflammation – a reaction related to immunity – which has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions • Contribute to insulin resistance
  • Can have harmful health effects even in small amounts – for each additional 2 percent of calories from trans-fat consumed daily, the risk of coronary heart disease increases by 23 percent.

There is much more on this topic in the Spencer Institute Holistic Nutrition Coach Certification Course.  You will also learn more on related topics as part of the NESTA Fitness Nutrition Coach Certification and Lifestyle and Weight Management Specialist Certification.

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