Eating an unhealthy diet from a young age may well lead to heart disease later in life -- especially if your diet is full of inflammation-causing foods like processed meats, red meat, sugary drinks and processed oils.

Adding more evidence of the long-term risks of fatty and sugary foods, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health followed more than 200,000 US healthcare professionals aged between 24 and 40, over a period of 24 to 32 years. Every four years, participants reported the type of food they ate and how often.

Researchers found that those who ate a diet rich in inflammatory foods had a 38% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), including heart attacks and strokes, than those who reported a healthier diet. The study was published in the November issue of Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

How do “inflammatory” foods cause damage?

Processed foods play a huge role in inflammation. It is the processed foods that generally contain trans fats and saturated fats, both known to promote inflammation in the body. Besides the food categories already noted, processed cheeses, smoked foods, processed wheat products and sweetened chocolate are examples of inflammatory foods, Dana Weiner, a registered dietician at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, Israel, told Medical Daily . Studies have shown that these foods can cause inflammation in the body.

Inflammation is the immune system’s defense against invaders and infections. Short periods of inflammation are meant to help your body heal. However, long-term inflammation can damage blood vessels, cells and tissues, leading to CVD, as well as other chronic conditions. One study showed an important connection between trans fats and a substance in the blood called CRP that indicates there is inflammation in the body. In those who ingested the most trans-fat, 73% showed a higher level of CRP as compared who ate the least.

Diet is one facet of heart-risky lifestyle

Diet is only part of the problem. People with unhealthy diets] are often the same people who don't exercise and have poorly controlled blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes profiles, which all put them at risk of heart disease and stroke,” said Anuj R. Shah, MD, an interventional cardiologist and founder of Apex Heart and Vascular in New Jersey. Smoking and being overweight can also raise the risk of heart disease.

Once a person with heart disease adopts a healthy lifestyle, the positive changes to their health can be measured, Dr. Shah told Medical Daily . “We see tremendous results on their cardiac tests showing reduction in plaque content,” as well as lowered blood pressure and improved lipid, or cholesterol, levels.

What foods fight inflammation?

The Mediterranean diet includes anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy foods, agreed Dr. Shah and Ms. Weiner. The diet revolves around:

  • Whole fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Healthy fats
  • Moderate amounts of fish, poultry, beans and eggs
  • Moderate amounts of dairy

“The sooner you start eating healthier, the more it helps,” said Ms. Weiner. “We do recommend the entire population eat a plant-based diet, which means less meat, less processed food, and more anti-inflammatory food. Even if you already have heart disease, it’s never too late to change your eating habits and lifestyle with your dietitian.”

Future research will enable providers to give more personalized nutrition advice, said Ms. Weiner. “The new field of research in nutrition takes into account other factors ... such as genetics, microbiome and more. In the next decade we will know more in order to give the best nutritional prescription.”

The take home

You truly are what you eat. Eating fewer inflammatory foods -- and more anti-inflammatory foods -- over time may help keep your heart healthy. If you are interested in learning how to lower your risk for heart disease, talk with your doctor. You can also check out the American Heart Association website for information on the Mediterranean diet and other tips on eating for a healthier heart.