Monday Medical: Feed your heart |

Monday Medical: Feed your heart

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When it comes to heart disease, food plays a big role. In fact, some people have even been able to reverse heart disease by changing their diet.

“It’s not going to work for everybody,” said Cara Marrs, a registered dietitian nutritionist with UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “But, there are people who have had heart disease then reversed it through diet.”

Below, Marrs outlines some of the ways that healthy foods help your heart.

If you go

What: Real Food for Heart Health
When: Noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27
Where: UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center Conference Room 1
Learn more: and search Steamboat Springs

• The issue with plaque: An unhealthy diet can cause plaque buildup in your arteries and blood vessels.

“Imagine if the pipes in your house had a build-up of grime,” Marrs said. “It’s the same with your blood vessels. You end up with high blood pressure because there’s a smaller and smaller area for blood to flow through.”

• The antioxidant effect: The small but mighty endothelial cells lining the blood vessels are the frontline for fighting plaque.

“Research shows that these cells may ultimately determine the health of blood vessels,” Marrs said. “They play a major role in cardiovascular disease.”

One of the roles of these cells is to make nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and prevents plaque from forming, and the health of these cells depends on diet.

“When we damage endothelial cells with certain foods, such as processed foods high in unhealthy fats, they can’t make the nitric oxide that eats away at the cholesterol and plaque,” Marrs said. “But, antioxidants help these cells do their job.”

• The gut-health effect: “The gut microbiome is the frontier of health research,” Marrs said. “There are really cool connections with the health of the gut microbiome and heart health.”

For instance, studies have shown that patients with severely high blood pressure often have reduced diversity of microflora in their gut. And people with “SIBO,” or small intestinal bacteria overgrowth, have been shown to have stiffer arteries and other biomarkers for atherosclerosis, or the hardening and narrowing of the arteries.

• It’s not all diet: Genetics plays a big role in heart health, too.

“I see people who are doing what they should be in terms of diet and exercise, but they have a genetic predisposition to have high triglycerides and cholesterol,” Marrs said.

However, diet, along with exercise, stress management and sleep are the major factors when it comes to decreasing risk of heart disease.

“The majority of heart disease is lifestyle related,” Marrs said. “The good news is that you can change your diet and lifestyle.”

• The ideal diet: When people are diagnosed with heart disease, they often want to make changes. But they may not be sure where to start.

“Usually their go-to is to take fish oil and reduce the amount of red meat they eat,” Marrs said. “But, it’s more complex than that.”

Overall, Marrs recommends moderating intake of calories, while eating a whole-food, plant-rich, high-fiber, high-antioxidant diet.

A plant-based diet does not mean you have go vegan.

“You should focus on what you’re trying to add in to your diet, rather than stressing about what you can and can’t eat,” Marrs said.

Just don’t forget the fiber. One study showed the more dietary fiber people ate, the lower their risk of cardiovascular disease.

“Fiber is really important,” Marrs said. “I always stress fiber.”

If you need more motivation, remember that following a heart-healthy diet has benefits that reach beyond the heart.

“What you need to do to keep your weight at a good spot and your gut healthy and to prevent heart disease and other diseases — it’s all the same thing,” Marrs said.

And take Marrs’ advice to heart: perfection is never the goal.

“It’s not about being perfect. It’s about being really good 80 percent of the time – for your whole life,” Marrs said. “Food shouldn’t be the enemy. It should be enjoyable.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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