The premature death of newsman Tim Russert from a heart attack has brought attention to the American epidemic of heart disease. Although there are a number of factors that contribute to heart attacks, including heredity, personality and a sedentary lifestyle, nutrition has a lot to do with your heart’s health.
According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. One American dies from heart disease every 34 seconds. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that heart disease and stroke kill 17 million people a year worldwide, which is almost one-third of all deaths globally. WHO projects that heart disease and stroke will be the leading cause of death and disability worldwide by 2020, and that by 2030 they will kill over 24 million a year.
Whether you have a family history of heart disease or you’re just concerned about protecting your heart, you as an individual can lower your risk of heart disease and avoid becoming a statistic. One way to do that is to eat the right foods. According to the American Dietetic Association, there are many heart-healthy foods that will help prevent this very common and often fatal affliction.
But first, you need to understand the function of various important nutrients in preventing heart disease and what foods contain them.
Phytoestrogens function like estrogen, helping reduce blood clots and stroke as well as heart arrhythmias. Good sources of phytoestrogens are soy protein (tofu, soy milk, soybeans) as well as flaxseed.
Phytosterols are similar to cholesterol but may actually reduce it. Wheat germ, almonds, and peanuts are reliable sources of phytosterols.
Carotenoids are antioxidants that help protect the heart. Colored veggies and fruits such as blueberries, oranges, cantaloupe, papaya, spinach, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers, asparagus, tomatoes, and acorn squash, which all contain carotenoids, should be staples of your heart-healthy diet.
Polyphenols, which are also antioxidants, have many important functions including protecting blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and reducing bad LDL cholesterol. Such diverse foods as blueberries, dark chocolate, tea, red wine, oranges, bananas, and plantains all contain polyphenols.
Omega-3 fatty acids and alpha-linolenic fatty acids strengthen the immune system, decrease blood clots, protect against heart attacks, promote good HDL cholesterol levels, decrease triglyceride levels, protect against plaque buildup in arteries, lower blood pressure, and have an anti-inflammatory effect. Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and tuna, as well as plant-based foods like flaxseed, almonds, and walnuts will provide sufficient amounts of fatty acids in your diet.
The B-complex vitamins serve an important function in preventing heart disease. Specifically, vitamin B-3 (niacin) helps increase good HDL cholesterol; vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine) protects against blood clots and atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries; and vitamin B-9 (folate or folic acid) and vitamin B-12 (cobalamin) help reduce levels of the enzyme homocysteine, too much of which can cause narrowed blood vessels, clots, and damage to artery walls.
B-3 can be found in tuna, salmon, whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, barley, black beans, and kidney beans.
B-6 is present in fatty fish, whole grains, carrots, leafy green veggies, sunflower seeds, and brewer’s yeast.
B-9 is plentiful in tuna, whole grains, beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, leafy greens and other veggies, walnuts, and many fruits.
B-12 is derived from microorganisms (bacteria) and is readily found in most animal-derived foods. Plant-derived foods are not considered a reliable source of B-12. Vegans, who don’t consume animal products, should make sure they’re getting adequate levels of B-12 in order to keep their homocysteine levels down and protect themselves from heart disease. The Vegan Society recommends that vegans eat foods fortified with B-12 every day. These include certain plant-based milks like rice and soy as well as other soy products and many breakfast cereals. The leafy green vegetables that most vegans eat, which contain folate, also help reduce homocysteine levels.
Vitamins C and E are powerful antioxidants that protect cells from free radical damage. Vitamin C is plentiful in colored vegetables and fruits. Vitamin E can be found in wheat germ, sunflower seeds, vegetable oils and nuts.
The important minerals magnesium, potassium, and calcium help lower blood pressure. Blueberries, papaya, oatmeal, spinach, brown rice, tomatoes, nuts, black beans and kidney beans are rich in magnesium. Bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, papaya, raisins, potatoes, oranges, apples, colored vegetables, and blackstrap molasses all contain potassium. Calcium can be obtained from blueberries, papaya, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, sesame seeds, some nuts, and low-fat dairy products.
Last but not least, foods with lots of fiber-what used to be called roughage-help lower cholesterol levels. Most fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts contain fiber.
The American Dietetic Association recommends five specific foods that are particularly heart healthy because of their potent combination of nutrients and fiber: blueberries, salmon, soy protein, oatmeal, and spinach.
And don’t forget raw garlic, which is delicious and has been credited with aiding circulatory system function. When cooking or making salads, mono- and polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil should be used instead of butter, lard, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats and oils.
Women, particularly after menopause but also during their reproductive years, are quite vulnerable to heart disease. A 1998 study conducted by Harvard School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School demonstrated that for women in particular, B-9 (folate) and B-6 (pyridoxine) may help prevent heart disease, as well as the consumption of more fruits, veggies and whole grains, and no more than one alcoholic drink a day.
A very effective but rather restrictive nutritional regimen for heart health, the Pritikin Diet, allows up to 10% of your caloric intake from fat as opposed to the 30% recommendation of the American Heart Association, as well as fruits, veggies, grains, and legumes instead of meat-derived protein and fat.
In summary, the most heart-healthy foods are colored and green leafy veggies and fruits, whole grains, fatty fish, soy products, beans, nuts, flaxseed, dark chocolate, tea, vegetable oils, and red wine in moderation.