Bigger Than The Heart

Habitat, diet and lifestyle choices are responsible for greater number of heart problems for men.

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The first line of inquiry when consulting your doctor about a suspected heart problem almost always concerns dietary choices. And for the more committed omnivore, the resulting advice invariably leads to the suggestion of reducing red meat, dairy and other high cholesterol foods that clog the arteries. They’re the subliminal killers we afford the status of staple foods, which should be limited if not abstained from.

The Western world—and English-speaking nations in particular—are known for having diets consisting of processed foods served in large portions that contain little in the way of nutritional value. The emphasis is on fuel rather than sustenance with supermarkets and fast food chains delivering ‘complete’ meals, and requiring little to no effort to prepare. They satisfy the demand for quick eats but come loaded with copious amounts of salt, fat and sugar. Unsurprisingly, the rate of heart disease in countries such as the UK, US, Australia and Canada are among the highest in the world.

In the UK alone, there are 1.6 million men living with coronary heart disease (CHD) compared with only 1 million women, while a similar divide exists between stroke sufferers of both sexes at 1 million and 500,000, respectively. However, this isn’t an isolated trend. It’s largely consistent throughout the world, as heart problems occur with greater frequency in males across the board. And while it’s true that instances of CHD and strokes have decreased overall since the 1980s, the mortality rate in men is still between two to four times higher than in women.

Even in countries well known for their better quality of life, the stats tell a similar story. Japan scores far lower for both CHD and strokes than countries such as the UK, yet the disparity between sexes still remains. Comparing the dietary habits between the two nations does at least provide a partial answer for the lower incidence rate, overall. The elegant rice bowls and bento boxes of Japan are in stark contrast to the plates served up in your typical ‘greasy spoon’ cafe, highlighting the difference in attitude towards health.

However, the food we put into our bodies is just one piece of a much larger puzzle that determines our long-term health. By retracing the steps from table to source, it brings us back to the produce that is native to a region. And although improved supply chains have made the exotic much more accessible in recent years, the staple diet of many countries is still largely made up of homegrown products. In this context, food is culture, and that culture is rooted firmly in the resources we have at our disposal. 

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Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Okinawans of Japan who were, until recently, famed for having the longest life expectancy of any people on Earth at over 100 years. Fourteen more than the national average, and a feat that would be next to impossible without robust heart health. The secret? A simple diet consisting of 30 per cent green and yellow vegetables with the remaining bulk made up of purple sweet potato, small amounts of meat, fish and grains, and all locally sourced whole foods. Even more tellingly, their daily calorie intake is 1,785 vs the average 2,068 of their mainland counterparts. They’re a moderate people, and very much a product of their surroundings, sustaining themselves by using what is available to them. No more, no less.

This lifestyle is made possible by the small tropical island off the south-west coast of Japan that Okinawans inhabit. In these idyllic surroundings the usual stressors many in the west face are all but non-existent. Habitat and quality of life translate to decreased stress, resulting in far fewer incidences of heart disease, and offers something of a clue why it is men appear to be at greater risk of running into such issues.

Again, it’s culture but more specifically hierarchical order. As male-centric societies are fuelled by a relentless desire to compete, the associated stress that leads to the onset of heart problems is an inescapable consequence of the western concept of success.

This asks the question of whether man has become the victim of his own patriarchy, struggling with the demands of maintaining the status quo, as the body and mind succumb to the effects of living in permanent adrenal-based action. For years, we thought a single root cause stood at the centre of our health issues, but the reality is much more complex. We need to take responsibility not just for our physical health, but also for our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. As we’re influenced by the best and worst qualities of our home and natural habitat, it falls to us to create our own definition of health, living with or against the land, that choice determining whether we thrive as we should or not.