Holidays come and go, yet the effects from eating poorly, even temporarily, have adverse consequences on our health. We may rationalize that "It's just a few meals, how harmful could they be?"
You may be surprised to learn that the majority of heart attacks occur during the holiday season, covering the weeks of Christmas through New Year's Day. Those with heart disease are especially at risk. However, anyone that's ever eaten the typical Western diet has cardiovascular disease to some degree; the diseased arteries just haven't progressed to the point of being detected yet. So actually, we are all at risk of suffering a fatal heart attack after consuming just one rich, high-fat meal.
Heart disease is a silent killer. Over 50% of fatal heart attacks occur in patients who had no previous symptoms of heart disease. Out of these, over 30% are fatal, making their first symptom of heart disease their last. Symptoms of heart disease are not felt until blockages are 70% or greater. Many times routine testing will not recognize blockages until they have become significant. (The heart treadmill test is one example.) Dr. Joel Fuhrman says that "Stress testing only identifies blockages that obstruct greater than eighty-five percent of the vessel lumen. A normal stress test is meaningless and does not mean you do not have significant heart disease or won't shortly have a heart attack." Most importantly, non-obstructive smaller plaques, which are found throughout our entire vascular system, cause the majority of heart attacks and strokes. These vulnerable plaques are impossible to see and can easily rupture.
Dr. Fuhrman points out in his article, It's Just One Meal. How Bad Could it Be? that a single low-nutrient meal, "may awaken old addictive drives that could then lead to many more low-nutrient meals." Furthermore, "A single meal is enough to cause damage to your cardiovascular system. There are more cardiac deaths on December 25, 26, and January 1 than any other days of the year. This sobering observation suggests that overindulging at a holiday meal can be extremely hazardous to your heart."
A typical holiday meal can consist of thousands of calories, particularly coming from high-fat foods such as meat, cheese, and oils. Studies have shown that a single meal high in saturated animal fat impairs endothelial cell function for four hours, and can impair blood flow for up to 6 hours. Cells become sticky soon after consuming a high-fat meal, making them clump together, which can stop the flow of blood in many smaller vessels. Saturated animal fat turns our blood fatty. As a result, blood vessels constrict, causing a surge in blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure can rupture the small vulnerable plaques mentioned above, resulting in a blood clot which can either travel to the brain or to the heart. The oxygen content of the blood also decreases, which can trigger chest pain, and impaired brain function.
It is important for us to learn how high-fat, low-nutrient foods affect the health of our blood vessels. The inside our blood vessels are lined with endothelial cells. These cells play a critical role in maintaining the health of our vascular system. Endothelial cells produce a gas called nitric oxide and other substances that regulate blood clotting mechanisms and blood pressure. Nitric oxide levels are constantly changing and are affected by the foods that we eat. This gas, which is responsible for vessel dilation, lasts for just a few seconds. High fat meals containing animal products, oils, and sugars damage these cells which sets into motion a chain of events. Damage to the endothelium promotes inflammation. This allows plaque to accumulate, which reduces the production of nitric oxide. As a result, vessels become stiff and lose their elasticity and ability to dilate. These vessels are also vulnerable to spasm, which impairs the flow of oxygenated blood. Maintaining the health of our endothelium and a continuous supply of nitric oxide is crucial. Diets rich in whole plant food promotes healthy endothelium, which enables the nitric oxide to be more stable; making it last longer.
If you're thinking about passing up the high-fat foods, and eating the salty, refined carbohydrates, and sugary desserts instead, these can be just as harmful as the saturated animal fat. Blood glucose rises sharply following a meal of refined carbohydrates which has also been shown to impair endothelial cell function. Dr. Fuhrman explains that this promotes "blood clotting (which increases heart attack risk), induces oxidative stress, depletes circulating antioxidants, increases blood pressure, increases circulating adhesion molecules, impairs the body's ability to fight infection, and decreases blood flow to the heart."
Dr. Fuhrman emphasizes that "A SINGLE unhealthful holiday meal inflicts damage on the cardiovascular system, contributes to atherosclerotic plaque development, and in susceptible individuals may even provoke a cardiac event."
Make your holiday celebrations memorable without a trip to the hospital! Do everything you can to make sure your holiday meal won't be your last one! Celebrate the New Year by choosing health-supporting foods over disease-promoting ones. Remember, optimal health depends on the health of our entire vascular system!
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