Heart Disease and Contributing Dietary Factors

Cardiovascular disease is rife in South Africa, with more than 200 people dying per day because of some form of heart and blood vessel disease.

For every woman that dies of a heart attack, 2 men die.

Chronic disease in SA, including heart disease, is increasing exponentially every year; and chronic disease deaths have quadrupled over the last decade.

More than half the deaths caused by chronic diseases, including heart disease, occur before the age of 65years.


For those diagnosed with some form of heart disease, it is also possible to treat this with lifestyle and dietary changes.


Cardiovascular disease

  • Any disease of the heart and blood vessels, mainly including diseases of the heart muscle, heart attacks, stroke, heart failure and disease caused by high blood pressure.

Heart attack (myocardial infarction: MI)

  • A narrowing or blockage of the arteries of the heart causes restriction of blood flow to the heart muscle, leaving the heart muscle deprived of oxygen. This causes death of part of the heart muscle which means it cannot adequately pump sufficient blood to the rest of the body.
  • Characterised by a sudden severe chest pain that may spread down one or both arms, and into the neck and jaw. Often accompanied by nausea.

Heart failure

  • Damage to the heart muscle caused by various diseases (e.g. hypertension, diabetes, kidney disease), results in the heart not functioning optimally. As result blood is not pumped around the body efficiently, and circulation becomes slow causing excess fluid to be retained in the body.


  • This happens when the blood flow to the brain is interrupted, either due to a blockage caused by a blood clot, or a ruptured blood vessel which causes bleeding.
  • Due to the lack of oxygen and other nutrients, the affected brain cells start to die.
  • The severity of a stroke can range from being just a passing weakness or a tingling sensation in a limb, through to paralysis, coma or death.


  • = A narrowing / blockage of the inner layer of the artery (blood vessel) wall.
  • Caused inter-alia by lipid abnormalities: High levels of fats in the blood can attach to the blood vessel walls causing this narrowing of / blockage in the blood vessel. This means that the blood cannot easily pass through the blood vessel anymore, and so the person is at risk of having a heart attack or stroke.


  • = Hardened arteries (due to calcification of the arteries, affecting the middle layer of the artery wall)
  • Dangerous condition that may contribute to stroke and heart attack
  • Artery walls consist of several layers of muscle. In a normal artery, the muscles are pliable, like an inner tube, and they contract and expand with every heartbeat. A hardened artery loses this pliability and muscle tone, which decreases its strength, making it more likely to rupture.
  • Calcification of the aorta is responsible for many sudden heart deaths.
  • This calcification/hardening of the arteries can be caused by many factors (e.g. SMOKING, and also magnesium deficiency in the case of excessive calcium supplementation).

Risk factors for heart disease

Dietary and lifestyle factors play an important role in the development of cardiovascular disease.

Having high lipid (i.e. cholesterol and/or triglyceride) levels does put one at risk.

There is an even greater chance of heart disease happening if the person also:

  • Has high blood pressure
  • Is overweight
  • Is diabetic
  • Is a smoker
  • Has a lot of stress
  • Does not exercise
  • Has a family history of heart disease.

Dietary factors that can contribute to heart disease

Eating too much SATURATED FATS (unhealthy fats)

Found in animal fats (fat on meat, skin on the chicken, full cream dairy, cream, high fat cheeses), and coffee creamers, deep fried fast foods, commercially baked goods and coconut milk and oil.  These fats increase the LDL cholesterol, which is that cholesterol fraction that causes blockages in arteries.

Eating too much OVERALL FAT

Diets based on a high intake of fried and fast foods, plenty of commercial baked goods (such as pies and pastries), and excessive oil (even the good oils such as olive / canola / avocado oil), margarine or butter, can contribute to a) weight gain which leads to heart disease and/or diabetes; and b) an increase in triglyceride levels (another blood fat which can potentially damage arteries or cause blockages).

Eating insufficient MONO-UNSATURATED FATS (healthy fats)

Mono-unsaturated fats as is found in olive and canola oil, avocados, and certain nuts and seeds, is cardio-protective. These must be included in the daily diet, and should replace saturated fats. Yet MUFAs should still not be eaten in excessive quantities, as excess weight gain can happen; or weight loss impeded.


Many people with elevated cholesterol levels, who do try and eat “low fat diets” cannot understand why their cholesterol levels remain high (often blaming their “genes”). However fibre, which is the roughage found in food (e.g. in fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, and wholegrains (such as wholegrain and seed breads, brown rice, barley, quinoa etc.) plays an incredibly important role in lowering LDL cholesterol. Simply put, the soluble fibre component in these foods, binds with the LDL-cholesterol, passing it out via the colon, preventing this from causing damage to arteries.

Eating too many REFINED STARCH FOODS (remember: “the whiter the bread, the sooner the death”!)

Refined starches (white breads, cake flour, pastries, pies, and sugars including sweets and cold drinks) cause blood sugar spikes and fluctuations which in turn causes insulin imbalances. This latter issue can contribute to many lifestyle issues e.g. obesity and diabetes, as well as elevated blood pressure and cholesterol problems.

Eating too much SALT

Excessive salt and sodium intake can undoubtedly lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure and stroke.

Eating inadequate anti-oxidant vitamins

Found in fruits, vegetables and beans, including soya beans, anti-oxidants have powerful cardio-protective effects.

Eating EXCESSIVE CALORIES resulting in weight gain

Remember that for every kilogram gained over and above our ideal weight, the heart must pump blood through an extra kilometre of blood vessels!

Excess intake of all foods, particularly those high in fats, sugars, refined starches and alcohol, causes weight gain and lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, gout and certain cancers.

Based on the above indications of what causes heart disease, one can realise that by making simple lifestyle changes, heart disease (despite genetic influences) can to a large degree, be prevented!

What blood test is done to check for heart disease?

A lipogram:

This tests for certain blood fats: cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol (= the bad cholesterol) and HDL (= the good cholesterol).

Healthy ranges for blood fats

Total cholesterol:                            < 4.9 mmol/l

Triglyceride:                                     < 1.6 mmol/l

HDL cholesterol:                              > 1    mmol/l

LDL cholesterol:                               < 2.9 mmol/l

Comments are closed.