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:

  1. Chronic inflammation

  2. Oxidative stress

  3. Vascular autoimmunity

  4. Dyslipidemia (cholesterol issues)

  5. Blood pressure

  6. Blood sugar

  7. Obesity

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.

1. Beets:

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.

2. Cinnamon

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.