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Top 10 Foods Your Heart Will Love
Making heart-healthy food choices is a very important part of the overall strategy when it comes to preventing or at least delaying heart disease and minimizing the impact of existing disease. Diet can help to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and to raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the two most important diet-related risk factors, but diet can also help to prevent heart disease by reducing other risk factors, such as, high blood pressure, overweight and obesity, reducing the incidence of insulin resistance, and helping to manage existing diabetes (all of which increase the risk for heart disease).
Diet can help to protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation making it less atherosclerotic, and antioxidants can help to maintain and improve blood vessel health.
Cold water fish
Sardines, salmon, herring and mackerel are by far the best sources of the heart healthy omega-3 fats: EPA and DHA. While white fish, such as, halibut or cod is better than not including any fish, the rule of thumb is, the fattier the fish, the better. Omega-3 fats have been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke. They help to reduce inflammation and to help keep the blood ‘thin’ so that it can flow through the arteries and veins more easily. Aim to have at least 3oz of fish, three times a week.
Ground flax and chia
These seeds are a great source of fibre which can help to keep blood cholesterol and blood sugar balanced in a healthy range. As a bonus, the fibre helps to promote regularity. These foods are also a great source of the plant-based, omega-3 fat called alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. ALA is an essential fat needed to optimize health and flax and chia are also a great source of antioxidants which help to reduce LDL oxidation and oxidative damage of the blood vessels. Aim to have 2 – 3 tablespoons per day.
Cooked tomato products, such as, paste, sauce, and juice are a great source of highly absorbable lycopene; a carotenoid like beta-carotene. Higher intake of carotenoids have been shown to protect against coronary heart disease. Lycopene, one of the strongest carotenoid-antioxidants, reduces LDL oxidation. Oxidation is responsible for making LDL cholesterol more ‘sticky”, enhancing atherosclerosis. Include tomato products weekly and/or at least four half cup servings of tomato juice or vegetable cocktail a week.
Kale, spinach & collard greens
Dark leafy greens like these including Swiss Chard are the best sources of lutein, another carotenoid. Lutein, like all carotenoids, is a powerful antioxidant, but research is showing that lutein has the unique ability to reduce the thickness of blood vessels which is the result of cholesterol build-up within the artery walls. Something referred to as intimal thickness is the technical term for plaques. In simplest terms, lutein helps to reverse some of the narrowing of blood vessels. Aim to have at least three half cup servings per week.
Dark chocolate contains cocoa. Cocoa is a source of phytochemicals called polyphenols. Some 4000 different types of polyphenols have been identified in nature and they are also abundant in tea, apples, berries, olives, olive and hemp oils, grapes and red wine. Cocoa polyphenols have been shown to increase blood flow, reduce platelet aggregation (think less sticky), are powerful antioxidants and like lutein have been shown to reduce intimal thickness. Just 40g of 70% dark chocolate a day will do. I prefer 85% dark chocolate for more bang for your buck.
Cold-pressed extra-virgin olive & hemp oil
These oils are a great source of monounsaturated fats which help to raise HDL cholesterol and both the green colour and astringent taste are due to the high levels of, you guess it, phenolic compounds [more polyphenols]. Hemp is unique that it is also a source of gamma-linolenic acid or GLA, a heart healthy fat with anti-inflammatory properties. 1-2 teaspoons a day is a good start. Remember not to heat these oils in order to get the most benefit.
All tea has more of those awesome polyphenols but green tea has the most. Matcha green tea is even better. This is what’s used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The dried green tea leaves are ground into a fine powder and because the whole tea leaf is consumed, the amount of polyphenols one gets is enormously more than that of bagged green tea. Drink daily.
Dark, richly coloured berries and fruit, such as, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, as well as, purple grapes, acai and pomegranate are rich in antioxidants which have been shown to reduce LDL oxidation and reduce inflammation – key to reducing the risk for heart disease. Aim to have one half cup serving daily.
Raw nuts and seeds
By keeping them raw, nuts and seeds: maintain higher amounts of vitamin E and the heart healthy oil MUFA, and are not degraded or altered. Nuts and seeds are also a great source of phytochemicals and magnesium, a mineral that helps to relax blood vessels, opening them up for greater blood flow. These are high in calories; so, the amount one can eat, depends on one’s energy requirements, but almost everyone can afford to have a quarter cup each day.
Wheat germ & wheat germ oil
Wheat germ is the best food source of natural vitamin E. Try to use raw wheat germ where possible, vitamin E is heat sensitive. Vitamin E helps to reduce LDL and blood vessel oxidation. Wheat germ oil comes as supplements. Wheat germ can be sprinkled on salads, stirred into yogurt, smoothies or oatmeal. Aim for 2-3 teaspoons per day.3
Doug Cook, RD MHSc CDE is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator who currently works at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and as a nutrition consultant. He practices a holistic and integrative approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with nutritional supplements and natural health products where appropriate. He recently co-authored Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies (Wiley, 2008). Visit his website: www.wellnessnutrition.ca