Heart protection begins in the kitchen.
By Brittany Anas
As it is with most chronic conditions, your fork is your best defense against heart attacks, strokes and other forms of cardiovascular disease. But while a basic produce-heavy, clean-protein diet is a must, some foods really shine when it comes to heart health.
Research has shown avocados are a powerhouse when it comes to cardiovascular health, says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, chief medical officer of the spa chain Well & Being, which operates in three states, and director for the first Interprofessional Fellowship in Integrative Health and Medicine in California.
Avocados can significantly lower levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, which are a type of fat in your blood that can increase your chances of developing heart disease, Low Dog explains. (A quick primer: LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” type because it contributes to the development of plaque, a buildup in artery walls that can put at you at a higher risk for heart attacks and stroke.)
“Avocados contain more than twice the amount of potassium than bananas, are low in sodium, high in fiber and extremely low in sugar, all of which makes them an incredibly healthy addition to the diet,” Low Dog says, noting that avocados are the only fruit that contain a significant amount of heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fats. On top of that, the fats in avocados help the body absorb other key nutrients.
If you’re looking for ways to incorporate more avocados into your diet, take a lead from Low Dog and add them to smoothies, spread them on toasted whole grain bread instead of butter, or slice one open and add a little lemon.
“While many fruits and vegetables should be purchased organic, it isn’t really necessary for avocados, as the thick outer skin protects the inner flesh from pesticide residues,” Low Dog adds.
Berry patches are nature’s healthy equivalent of a candy bowl: It doesn’t matter whether you prefer strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries.
“Berries are all packed with anthocyanins, which have antioxidant properties that may decrease the risk of heart disease,” says Keri Gans, MS, RDN, registered dietitian/nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet (Gallery Books). “They are also a good source of fiber, which is known to help decrease cholesterol levels.”
Numerous studies highlight the health benefits of berries. The anthocyanins in blueberries, for example, protect against hypertension, or high blood pressure, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And eating three or more servings of blueberries and strawberries per week may help women slash their risk of heart attack by as much as one third, according to another study published in Circulation.
Berries are easy snacks, Gans says, but they are also an excellent addition to smoothies, plain yogurt and hot or cold cereal. Her quick tip: “You can even spread them on peanut butter as your ‘jelly’ for a PB&J sandwich.”
When it comes to greens, broccoli takes the crown for being among the most heart-healthy. That’s because broccoli contains especially rich amounts of sulforaphane, a compound that can essentially switch on a protein to prevent plaque from clogging up arteries, according to a study in the Journal of Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. (While the highest levels of sulforaphane are in broccoli, it’s also found in other cruciferous veggies like cabbage, kale, cauliflower, bok choy and Brussels sprouts.)
Cardiovascular protection is only one of broccoli’s many health benefits. It has also been linked to improvements in the body’s ability to detoxify itself as well as reductions in cancer risk.
Aside from its usual placement as a dinner side, broccoli can be added into a breakfast frittata along with heart-healthy tomatoes. It’s also delicious when tossed with pine nuts, olive oil and whole-wheat pasta. And broccoli sprouts, which are easy to grow at home, contain even more sulforaphane than the adult plants.
If you’re craving a sugary treat, snub the cookies and candies. Instead, opt for dark chocolate, which is a treat for your heart, too.
“Regular consumption of dark chocolate helps enhance blood flow, which is important for heart health, reduces the risk of stroke and even helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels,” Low Dog says.
Dark chocolate also helps restore flexibility to your arteries and keeps white blood cells from sticking to the walls of vessels, according to a 2014 study in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal. Arterial stiffness and white blood cell adhesion are both factors that can play a role in atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries as a result of plaque buildup.
A half ounce is a good portion size, and look for a fair trade chocolate with at least 70% cocoa, Low Dog suggests. “But don’t overdo it!” she cautions. “One ounce of dark chocolate has roughly 155 to 170 calories.”
A staple at sushi restaurants, this green soybean is a great go-to snack that can promote heart health. “I love having a bag of frozen, shelled edamame ready to go in my freezer,” says Christy Brissette, MS, RD, founder of 80 Twenty Nutrition. “That way I can boil it for a couple of minutes and then I have a quick and healthy protein.”
Beyond its potential to quell a snack attack, edamame and other soyfoods are rich in isoflavones, which are phytonutrients that can boost functioning of your arteries and veins, says Brissette. (To learn about soy’s use in protein powders, see the box below.)
“Replacing some animal protein, especially red meat, in your diet with plant protein source such as edamame is linked to better health and even a longer life,” Brissette says. “This could be because you’re getting more fiber, which can help lower LDL cholesterol levels and help manage your weight to lower heart disease risk.”
Brissette suggests adding edamame to salads or a stir-fry, or roasting it to have around as a crunchy snack. It’s also delicious when it’s pureed with some olive oil and lemon juice to make an edamame hummus.
If you’re ordering edamame at a restaurant, though, ask that they hold the salt. Then, you can sprinkle some on sparingly for yourself if you’d like to help limit your sodium intake.
You may have found yourself debating over whether tomatoes are a fruit or a vegetable. (The US Supreme Court in Nix v. Hedden decided they are veggies under customs regulations, but from a botanical definition, tomatoes fall in the fruit category). One fact is far less controversial, however: Tomatoes are definitely heart-healthy, thanks in large part to lycopene, says Brissette.
Lycopene, an antioxidant phytonutrient that gives tomatoes their red hue, can help reduce inflammation and lower LDL cholesterol levels, she explains.
“Research suggests that eating lycopene-rich foods regularly is linked to a lower risk of heart disease,” says Brissette, who adds that when it comes to food sources, tomatoes are the richest source of lycopene. They also perform a nutrition magic trick of sorts by becoming healthier when you cook them. “Cooked tomatoes contain up to 2.5 times as much lycopene as raw tomatoes,” Brissette notes.
To get more tomatoes in your diet, try adding a tomato paste to your vegetable or chicken stock for extra flavor, Brissette suggests. In addition, crushed tomatoes are a delicious topping on your homemade pizza or as a sauce on your favorite pasta or quinoa.
“Buy jars of pureed tomatoes instead of tomato sauce,” Brissette advises. “Most tomato sauce has plenty of sugar and salt added to it that you don’t need for a yummy sauce. Just add your own herbs to your pureed tomatoes and you’ll have a heart-healthy sauce.”
Mother Nature might be dropping some hints: When you crack open a walnut, it resembles a heart—and the nut just so happens to be a boon for your cardiac health.
“Walnuts are rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant that may help prevent the buildup of plaque in the arteries, lowering the risk of coronary artery disease and heart attacks,” Brissette says.
On top of that, walnuts are a great source for omega-3 fatty acids, which help ease inflammation, and just 1/4 cup fulfills most people’s daily need for the fatty acid, according to Brissette.
“Get more walnuts in your day by adding them to your oatmeal, trail mix, yogurt and salads,” she suggests. “They’re also delicious in your healthy baked goods and a substitute for pine nuts in homemade pesto.”
Buying raw, unsalted walnuts will garner you the most heart health benefits, Brissette says. She explains that “raw walnuts will have more vitamin E than roasted because the nutrient is sensitive to heat.” Plus, cutting back on sodium (ahem, salted nuts) is another way to love your heart by helping to control blood pressure, she says.
Five Ways to Protect Your Heart
See your dentist regularly: Oral health translates to heart health. A study from Taiwan of more than 100,000 people showed that those who had their teeth professionally cleaned and scaled by a dentist or dental hygienist lowered their risk of heart attack by 24% (13% for stroke) compared with those who never had a dental cleaning.
Quit smoking: Even one or two cigarettes a day can dramatically increase the risk of heart attack, stroke or other serious condition, says Jason Freeman, MD, director of Interventional Cardiology at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, New York. A major risk factor on its own, the risk of heart disease increases further when smoking is combined with high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, according to the National Heart Blood and Lung Institute. (And avoid secondhand smoke, which can also increase cardiac risk.)
Monitor your blood pressure: The American Heart Association says normal blood pressure should be below 120/80 mm/Hg. High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, heart failure and stroke; if you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, aim to lower your blood pressure to less than 140/80 mm/Hg. Check with your practitioner regarding what blood pressure level is right for you.
Take the stairs: As an easy on-the-go exercise, take the stairs instead of an escalator or elevator whenever you can. It is also a great way to monitor your cardiac health. If you can’t make up the same amount of stairs you did a week ago without stopping, see your physician for a checkup.
Control your emotions: Strong emotions, such as anger, sadness, frustration or anxiety, can increase blood pressure and put stress on the heart. A 2004 Canadian study reported that heart attack risk for people with high levels of psychosocial distress nearly matched the risk seen in smokers.