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Superfoods for Your Heart
We often take our hearts for granted; a tireless ally, it beats between 105,000 to 115,000 times per day – incredible! But like many things, our heart needs some TLC if we expect it to be there when we need it. Because the heart doesn’t work in a vacuum, anything we do, such as exercise, stress reduction and the foods we choose, to love our heart will benefit the entire cardiovascular system.
Nutrition’s biggest positive impact on heart and cardiovascular health isn’t its modest ability to lower LDL cholesterol as we’ve been lead to believe but rather improving the ratios of all the blood fats: HDL, total & LDL cholesterol, as well as, triglycerides.
Oxidized, or damaged LDL cholesterol, is a pivotal first step in plaque formation but a nutrient-dense diet can prevent this. Diet also improves heart health by protecting the lining of the blood vessels by lowering inflammation and improving something called ‘endothelial function’ or the ability of your blood vessels to expand and contract. Flexible blood vessels are critical for blood flow and maintaining optimal blood pressure. For these reasons, both you and your heart will love these ‘heart friendly’ superfoods:
Salmon: while most will think of the omega-3 fats in salmon, and rightfully so, salmon also delivers a lot of other heart healthy nutrients such as potassium, selenium, B vitamins including B12 and choline, vitamins A & D to boot.
Oatmeal: the soluble fiber in oats helps to keep blood sugar levels balanced which benefits triglyceride levels. Whole grain oats provide anti-inflammatory nutrients like vitamin E and polyphenols and the minerals chromium and magnesium help to maintain insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism.
Citrus: vitamin C is a great anti-inflammatory nutrient but it also helps to ‘rust proof’ the lining of blood vessels and vitamin C helps to maintain a healthy blood pressure. The bioflavonoids in whole citrus (think the white pith) also puts the lid on inflammation keeping it from getting out of control.
Nuts: vitamin E is the standout heart healthy nutrient in nuts. Vitamin E helps to protect LDL cholesterol of oxidation; once damaged, LDL cholesterol easily penetrates the lining of the blood vessels (the endothelial) where it initiates and perpetuates inflammation and plaque formation. Nuts are also one of the best sources of blood sugar balancing magnesium and studies have shown that people who regularly include nuts in their diet have lower rates of high blood pressure.
Legumes: many may not realize that legumes are one of the richest sources of antioxidants, as well as, anti-inflammatory polyphenols. They also have several heart healthy nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and homocysteine-lowering folate. The fiber also helps to balance blood sugar which always benefits triglyceride levels.
Pomegranate: while not loaded with vitamins and minerals, pomegranates star power comes from its abundant amounts of phytonutrients, specifically polyphenols which lower inflammation. These special compounds also provide some antioxidant protection protecting LDL cholesterol and blood vessels from damage.
Green tea: rich in flavonoids, a type of polyphenol, green tea has been shown to support nitric oxide production, a gas that is produced in the cells of the circulatory system which helps blood vessels to dilate and contract normally thereby reducing endothelial dysfunction. The flavonoids also protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation.
Flax: as a seed, flax is rich in heart-loving potassium and vitamin E. Potassium is king when it comes to keeping blood pressure low; in fact getting more potassium in the diet is more important than lowering sodium. Lowering blood pressure helps to prevent blood vessel damage; an important goal for a healthy heart.
Broccoli: as a green vegetable, broccoli is pack with beta carotene, lutein, vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium all of which support a healthy cardiovascular system. As a cruciferous vegetable, broccoli is also a good source of sulfur, an important element that the body needs to make glutathione; an important antioxidant and the cells master detoxifying compound. Maintaining higher levels of glutathione are associated with overall lower rates of chronic diseases, including heart disease.
Spinach & kale: dark greens in general are very heart-healthy as rich sources of blood pressure-lowering magnesium, potassium, as well as, vitamin K, but also because they are one of the richest sources of carotenoids which deliver a one-two punch against inflammation and oxidation. Spinach and kale deliver a hefty dose of alpha and beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin.
Tomatoes & cooked tomato products: one of the richest sources of lycopene, tomatoes, and especially cooked tomato products, has long been associated with lower cardiovascular disease. Lycopene is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds as well. Tomato and tomato products are also a rich source of vitamin C and one of the best sources of potassium. Other nuanced properties include seemingly countless phytonutrients which is why food-based sources of lycopene are superior to supplements.
Avocado: most think of the so-called heart-healthy monounsaturated fat when it comes to avocado. Truth be told, monounsaturated fats are not essential as the body can make what it needs but the real power of avocados when it comes to loving your heart is the line-up of nutrients such as alpha and beta carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, fiber, the B vitamin folate, potassium and the polyphenols.
Doug Cook, RDN, MHSc is a Registered Dietitian and Integrative & Functional Nutritionist. He is the coauthor of “Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies” and “175 Best Superfood Blender Recipes” (Robert Rose, 2017). Follow him on Facebook or Twitter or learn more at: www.dougcookrd.com