5 Foods That Love Your Heart
February is Heart Health Month. Heart disease (heart attacks, heart failure and stroke), is the leading cause of mortality worldwide.. The good news is that there are many dietary and lifestyle factors that can be powerful tools for lowering our heart attack & stroke risk. This article features 5 foods that support heart health.
While addressing cholesterol levels is important for heart health and disease prevention, it is not the whole picture. Research shows that half of all heart attacks occur in persons with normal cholesterol levels.
According to Dr. Mark Houston, Associate Clinical Professor at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, Head of the Hypertension Institute at St. Thomas Hospital, and author of the book What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Heart Disease, there are seven pathways to heart disease:
Dyslipidemia (cholesterol issues)
In order to properly support cardiovascular health, we should consider all of these pathways.
One of these factors - high blood pressure - is a leading risk factor for the development of heart attack and stroke, experts estimate that 50% of all heart attacks and 70-80% of strokes are linked to elevated blood pressure. Because high blood pressure often is without symptoms, you may not know your blood pressure is elevated. Having a blood pressure monitor at home can help you become aware of your blood pressure and monitor it. Normal blood pressure is under 120/80 in adults. There are a number of foods that can help to lower blood pressure, with beets topping the list.
Studies have shown that consuming beets or beet juice can significantly lower elevated blood pressure. The effect appears to be greater for systolic blood pressure (contraction), rather than diastolic blood pressure (in between contractions, when your heart is relaxed). While beets can effectively lower elevated blood pressure, it does not appear to lower normal blood pressure unless much higher amounts are consumed.
The blood pressure lowering effects of beets is likely due to their high concentration of nitrates. In your body, dietary nitrates are converted into nitric oxide, a molecule that dilates blood vessels, this can cause blood pressure to drop.
Beets only have a temporary effect on blood pressure, so regular consumption is required to experience long-term reductions in blood pressure. For persons wanting to consume beets regularly, you might consider incorporating beet chews, beet juice, or beet powders – all of which can be consumed consistently.
By promoting the dilation of blood vessels and thus increasing blood flow to the brain, regular consumption of beets may also improve mental and cognitive function, especially the improving flow to the frontal lobe which is important for memory and reasoning.
Beets also contain pigments called betalains, which possess a number of anti-inflammatory benefits. Betalains also have antioxidant properties which may help prevent and repair endothelial damage, which according to Dr. Houston is one of the leading drivers for heart disease.
Additionally, beets are a good source of fiber, which is beneficial for digestive health, helps lower cholesterol, and reduces the risk of a number of chronic health conditions like colon cancer.
How to incorporate: grate raw beets or slice roasted beets into salads, beet powders can be added to smoothies and baked goods, beet juice can be consumed, or consider snacking on 1-2 beet chews once or twice a day.
Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels are important for heart health. Poorly controlled blood sugar overtime can cause damage to the blood vessels and nerves that control the heart (CDC). Research shows that cinnamon may hold some promise for supporting healthy blood sugar levels, triglycerdies, blood pressure and cholesterol.
Cinnamon is a spice that is made from the inner bark of trees known as Cinnamomum. The cinnamaldehyde in the spice causes dilation of your blood vessels (vasodilatation), which can improve circulation and reduce blood pressure. According to this study, consuming cinnamon daily helped improve serum glucose, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels (both LDL and total). Cinnamase, an active compound in cinnamon, may have an inhibitory effect on HMG-CoA reductase, the enzyme responsible for producing cholesterol.
The abundance of flavonoids in cinnamon helps to lower inflammation. This may reduce metabolic problems and help to prevent complications due to diabetes, which puts individuals at a higher risk of heart disease.
If you are regularly consuming cinnamon - especially in high amounts, the type of cinnamon you choose is important - you will want to choose Ceylon cinnamon over cassia cinnamon:
Ceylon cinnamon: Also known as Sri Lankan, or “true” cinnamon, ceylon cinnamon is generally is more expensive, milder, and the superior form. It only has trace amounts of coumarin. They may sell it at your grocery store, but if not, you can order it online. If supplementing with cinnamon or consuming ½ a teaspoon or more consistently - definitely opt for Ceylon.
Cassia cinnamon: Most products that are labeled “cinnamon,” are cassia, which is from the cassia tree - it is not “true” cinnamon. Cassia is cheaper, and so it is more widely available. But the cassia type contains coumarin, which could be toxic to the liver in higher doses or when taken consistently for long periods. If you are just sprinkling a little on occasionally, cassia is generally safe.
Sprinkle cinnamon on your oatmeal, in your morning coffee, and add to baked goods such as these healthy grain free flax muffins.
3. Avocado & Olive Oils
A half an avocado a day might just help keep the doctor away! Avocados are rich in heart healthy monounsaturated fats - which help to fill us up, keep us satisfied, stabilize blood sugar, and contain important antioxidants. Avocados also contain a good amount of fiber, which supports digestion and healthy cholesterol levels.
Avocados are rich in potassium (more than a banana!), which is important for balancing sodium levels and plays a part in healthy blood pressure.
Avocado oil is also a healthy oil associated with lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides.
One of the key benefits of cooking with avocado oil is that it has a high smoke point, which means it’s less likely to be oxidized (damaged) during cooking - so avocado is the oil I use for cooking above 400 degrees. When fats and cholesterol are oxidized, that is when they become damaging to heart health, brain, and immunity.
Olive oil is another beneficial fat for the heart. A recent study showed that when participants used 2 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil daily, it lowered blood pressure, with 35% of the participants benefitting so much that they were able to stop their medications!
Often heart healthy foods, may also be good for the brain. Olive oil may also benefit brain health, a recent study out of Temple University found that olive oil staved off dementia in mice. Another study found that “oleocanthal, a phenolic component of extra-virgin olive oil, has been recently linked to reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease.”
Credited as a heart healthy diet, the Mediterranean diet is plentiful in healthy fats such as olive oil.
Serve your morning eggs with a side of avocado, top your toast with avocado, add a half an avocado to your smoothie, smear it on your wrap sandwich or slice it on your salad. If cooking on high heat, use avocado oil. Saute in olive oil over low-medium heat, top a salad with olive oil, drizzle on hummus, and some people even swear by starting your day by drinking a spoonful of olive oil!
4. Chia Seeds
Foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids are known for their powerful anti-inflammatory and blood thinning effects, which can help to reduce blood pressure.
Chia seeds are a particular good option - because in addition to the omega 3 content, they are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and are a very unique type of fiber.
Chia seeds are very hydrophilic, which means they soak up a lot of liquid - about 10 times their weight! When chia comes into contact with liquid, it soaks it up, creating a “gel.” This gel fills you up, provides lasting energy, supports digestion & helps to lower cholesterol and blood sugar. But because of its hydrophilic properties, it is important for chia seeds to be soaked prior to consuming (or they may draw water from inside your stomach).
When adding fiber - start slowly to allow the body to adjust. Start with a half a teaspoon of chia seeds added to your smoothie, or stirred into a glass of water or your favorite liquid. If tolerated, work your way up to a tablespoon. If that is tolerated, you might enjoy something called chia pudding (recipe).
5. Opt for Dark Chocolate
Experts have long pointed the finger at salt as the primary culprit for high blood pressure. But that has recently come into question as experts are pointing the finger at another white substance– SUGAR (read: Is Salt a Culprit or an Innocent Bystander in Hypertension?).
Blood sugar and blood pressure - are closely linked. When one goes up, the other seems to follow. Post meal glucose spikes increases blood pressure and the risk for heart attack.
So following dinner with dessert every evening may not be a heart healthy choice…unless you choose dark chocolate. A healthy alternative to sweets, dark chocolate offers many heart health benefits. A Harvard study found that dark chocolate lowered blood pressure as well as reduced the risk of heart attack and diabetes.
Dark chocolate is high in magnesium, which is often called "the calming mineral" - it helps to relax the blood vessels, lower stress levels, and is important for blood sugar balance and over 300 biochemical reactions in the body - including conversion of vitamin D3 to the active hormone form.
Another beneficial compound in chocolate – flavonoids - cause dilation of the blood vessels, this helps to improve blood flow to extremities. When blood flow is improved, not only does this lower heart attack and stroke risk, but it improves brain function. A study found that subjects who consumed chocolate before taking a math test performed better than controls. Again – heart and brain health tend to benefit together!
Chocolate consumption is also linked to improved mood, in fact - a study found that persons who consumed chocolate were less likely to suffer depression. This may be due to a mood enhancing compound in cacao called theobromine.
Opt for dark chocolate (70% r higher cacao), which has less sugar and more of the beneficial compounds like flavonoids (up to 2-3 times more flavanols than milk chocolate). Dark chocolate, for example, contains from 46 to 61 mg of catechin, a type of flavonoid, in 100 grams (about one ounce), while milk chocolate contains only 15 to 16 mg.
When people tell me that they only like milk chocolate, I encourage them to slowly increase the cacao content – start with 50% cacao, then go to 60% and work your way up to 70%. They even have higher cacao contents – 85%, and even 100%.
How to incorporate it: Enjoy 1-2 squares of dark chocolate in lieu of dessert, add raw cacao powder to your smoothies (sweeten with monk fruit or dates), add cacao nibs to smoothies and top your yogurt. Find some healthy recipes using cacao at www.saravance.com like this healthy ‘Frosty’ chocolate smoothie, and these grain free chocolate donuts.
Article written by Sara Vance, Nutritionist & Author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan.
Sara Vance is a Nutritionist and not a medical doctor, this article is general in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. If you are under the care of a doctor or taking medication, consult your doctor with questions. The above foods can have powerful effects on blood pressure and other factors, persons taking medication should talk to their doctor and continue to closely monitor their condition, as they may need to work with their doctor to adjust dosages.