Most of us are aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. In fact, it accounts for one in every four deaths, with nearly one million people suffering heart attacks each year. Furthermore, approximately two million Americans are diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes each year, which is one of the leading risk factors for developing heart disease.
Although poor diet and physical activity are the primary environmental risk factors for developing Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease, many Americans resist making the permanent lifestyle changes necessary to safeguard their health. While high-risk individuals still may need a major diet overhaul, there are several foods that can be included in anyone’s diet to improve heart health. These foods, rich in phytonutrients, actually prevent and repair damage to cells with every bite.
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can effectively reduce blood pressure and prevent clotting. Adding just two servings of salmon to your diet each week may reduce your risk of heart attack by up to one-third, without lifting a finger. If you’re not a fan of salmon, other oily fish such as mackerel or tuna provide the same benefits. Just be sure to select wild-caught fish, as their farm-raised counterparts may be loaded with pesticides.
Berries contain beta-carotene and lutein, vitamin C, calcium, folate, magnesium,
potassium and fiber, which means they really pack a punch when it comes to heart health. Edmond pharmacist Dave Mason is currently completing his certification in clinical nutrition, and frequently offers dietary solutions to patients that can be utilized in conjunction with medication. “Berries are antioxidant-rich, and they act as natural anti-inflammatories, which can seriously reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.” Strawberries, blueberries, cranberries and raspberries all offer these benefits. “If you look at recent history, the trendy ‘superfood’ supplements are all derived from some type of berry, because berries really do benefit the whole body. They boost immunity, protect your heart, and improve your skin. You can’t go wrong there.”
Spinach is loaded with lutein, folate, potassium and fiber, as well as B-complex vitamins. If spinach isn’t your thing, increasing your servings of any vegetable is going to offer some of these heart-healthy benefits. The Physicians’ Health Study examined more than 15,000 men without heart disease for a period of 12 years. Those who ate at least two-and-a-half servings of vegetables each day cut their risk of heart disease by about 25 percent, compared with those who didn’t eat the veggies. Each additional serving reduced risk by another 17 percent.
Ground flaxseed is rich in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as fiber. It has a light, nutty flavor that can be hidden easily in all sorts of foods, such as yogurt parfaits, whole-grain cereal or oatmeal, even homemade muffins or cookies. “The key is to increase foods that could be found in a traditional hunter-gatherer diet of whole foods,” says Mason. “This is in keeping with the Paleo diets that are very popular right now… but what people don’t realize is this isn’t a ‘new’ trend. It’s exactly the opposite!”
Soy contains phytoestrogens which protect cells, and some studies suggest soy may help to lower cholesterol. Soy is low in saturated fat, and is an excellent source of lean protein. Choose natural soy sources such as organic tofu and edamame, but watch for added sodium and preservatives that are contained in many processed soy products. Substituting soy milk for regular in a bowl of whole-grain cereal offers a heart-healthy breakfast boost.
Lentils, chickpeas, and black and kidney beans contain omega-3 fatty acids and are loaded with soluble fiber. Adding a few servings each week provides a good source of lean protein that has many heart-healthy benefits.
7. Olive Oil
Full of monounsaturated fats, olive oil has been shown to lower bad LDL cholesterol and reduces the risk of developing heart disease. Results from the Seven Countries Study, which looked at cardiovascular disease incidences across the globe, showed that while men in Crete had a predisposition for high cholesterol levels, relatively few died of heart disease because their diet focused on heart-healthy fats found in olive oil. The extra-virgin and virgin varieties are the least-processed, which will serve to maximize these benefits. Choose olive oil instead of butter when cooking for a heart-healthy boost to those sautéed vegetables.
Walnuts are full of omega-3 fatty acids and, along with almonds and macadamia nuts, are loaded with mono- and polyunsaturated fat. An excellent source of protein, nuts provide an energy boost and protect your heart.
Avocadoes are packed with monounsaturated fats, which help to lower LDL cholesterol while raising good HDL cholesterol. Furthermore, avocadoes aid in the absorption of other carotenoids, such as beta-carotene and lycopene, which are essential for heart health.
10. Whole Grains
Minimally-processed whole grain food sources, such as oatmeal, contain omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium, folate, niacin, calcium and lots of soluble fiber. “The trick is finding whole grains as close to their natural state as possible. Steel-cut oatmeal can be a great choice, but stay away from the instant varieties,” says Mason. “Ezekiel bread, made from sprouted grains, is also a good choice. Many highly-processed foods claim to have multiple servings of whole grains, but by the time they hit the shelves, they’re not going to be of much benefit to the body with so many additives.”
Incorporating “whole” or “clean” foods such as those listed above into your diet can benefit anyone, at any age. Look for minimally-processed food sources with lots of colors. The more colorful the food, the more antioxidants it has on board. The phytonutrients found in these foods will serve to prevent cellular damage, and can even repair damage that already exists. Since you have to eat anyway, consider adding these foods to your diet for a healthier heart!
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and single mom to two girls. An Edmond resident, she graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma and is an HR manager in the medical field.