Cholesterol and heart disease – it's a heart breaker! | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Cholesterol and heart disease – it's a heart breaker!


Just the size of your fist, your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood around your organs in blood vessels known as arteries and it returns to the heart through veins. Your heart needs its own blood supply to keep pumping and heart disease occurs when arteries carrying blood for the heart to use (coronary arteries) start to become blocked. Gradually, they become furred with ‘plaques’ – a thick sludge formed from cholesterol and other substances. This process is known as atherosclerosis. This furring up results in a smaller diameter blood vessel through which blood has to flow. It can also block nutrients from being delivered to the artery walls, which can then lose their elasticity and result in high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease. This same process can, of course, happen in arteries throughout the body. With a restricted blood supply, your heart labours to keep beating, causing horrible chest pain from angina. When one of the coronary arteries becomes completely blocked, you are at a greater risk of a heart attack. Cholesterol is subdivided into two types. High density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as ‘good’ cholesterol because it collects excess cholesterol and carries it from the arteries to the liver for disposal. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol because if there is an excess in the bloodstream, it is deposited along artery walls. Cholesterol is solely in animal foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy and so on) but there is none in any plant foods. Even fat-rich plants such as avocados, nuts and seeds do not contain cholesterol. But studies prove conclusively that cholesterol and heart disease are inextricably linked. Consuming cholesterol-rich foods can increase the body’s levels of cholesterol to some extent but much more problematic is the effect of eating animal protein and saturated animal fats, found in dairy, hard cheeses, cream, ice cream, milk chocolate and butter, red and white meats, fish and eggs. Manufactured hydrogenated fats in ‘junk’ foods are also a serious problem. Animal protein, saturated and hydrogenated fats stimulate the body’s own cholesterol production. Vegetable protein tends to have the opposite effect and soya and oats, for example, can dramatically lower cholesterol levels. Reduce cholesterol and heart disease abates. As with the other diseases I refer to, heart disease is largely caused by our lifestyle. The World Health Organisation say bluntly “civilisation kills!” and they give the main three causes as: bad diet, lack of exercise and tobacco smoking (WHO, 2014b). They add that a massive 80 to 90 per cent of heart disease is due to our lifestyle rather than genetics (WHO, 2014c).