This Valentine’s Day, Consider Your Heart
Today is Valentine’s Day. We most often think about flowers, candy, and cards; maybe going out to dinner with loved ones, maybe a romantic evening. But I am thinking today about heart-healthy foods. What are foods that we can eat that can be medicine for our hearts, preventing and treating heart disease?
“In traditional societies, where people don’t eat processed foods, heart disease is rare,” says Dr. Arthur Agatston, cardiologist and author of “The South Beach Wake-Up Call”. “ If you start with a healthy diet in childhood, heart attacks are almost completely preventable.”
A truly healthy diet features a broad range of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. I set out to find which foods have the most beneficial properties and what those properties are. This is what I discovered:
Cold water fish. Swordfish, salmon, and sardines are all high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are crucial for heart health. Sardines have among the highest levels. Omega-3s are “good fats” in that they lower harmful triglycerides, raise protective HDL (your good, or happy cholesterol), reduce potentially fatal heart arrhythmias, and reduce imflammation. It’s inflammation that can destabilize plaque in the arteries, causing it to rupture and procude a heart-attack-inducing clot. You can also get omega-3s from plant sources like flaxseed, but the “long-chain” omega-3s in fish are far more powerful.
Oranges. Who knew? It turns out that the pectin (which is a soluble fiber) contained in oranges acts like a giant sponge. It mops up cholesterol in food and also helps to block its absorption. The potassium in oranges counter-balances salt, keeping blood pressure under control. But the big news is that citrus pectin helps neutralize a protein called galectin-3 that causes scarring of heart tissue. This can help to ward off congestive heart failure. It’s best to actually eat oranges or drink juice containing lots of pulp—that’s where the pectin is.
Dark chocolate. The Kuna Indians off the coast of Panama drink large quantities of minimally processed cocoa. These people all have low blood pressure and they don’t seem to develop hypertension at any age. Cocoa is high in compounds call flavanols, which improve blood vessel flexibility. Eating a few squares of dark chocolate a day can help—choose chocolate with 70% or more cocoa content.
Lentils. Studies show that regular consumption of legumes, especially lentils, is associated with an 82% reduction in the risk of death from heart disease. Lentils contain lean vegetable protein and fiber, also folate, magnesium, and potassium. Magnesium and potassium especially help to fight high blood pressure.
Almonds. The plant sterols in almonds reduce the absorption of cholesterol from foods, and the unsaturated oils that almonds contain help the liver to make less LDL (bad or “lousy” cholesterol) and more HDL (good, protective) cholesterol. Other nuts like walnuts, pistachios, and peanuts are also good because they contain omega 3s, vitamin E, magnesium, fiber, monounsaturated fats, and phytosterols which help decrease inflammation. Another study showed major declines in fatal heart arrhythmias with 2 servings of nuts a week (about 22 nuts per serving).
Kale and other dark, leafy greens. Kale is the superfood of leafy greens. It contains antioxidants, omega 3s, fiber, folate, potassium, and it is rich in lutein. Lutein offers protection against early atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). And kale also contains an unusual compound called glucoraphanin, that activates a special protective protein called Nrf2. “It creates a sort of Teflon coating in your arteries to keep plaque from adhering,” says Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of the bestseller “Eat to Live”.
Pomegranates. Pomegranates activate an enzyme that breaks down oxidized cholesterol. Oxidized cholesterol gets stuck in arterial walls, which starts the formation of plaque. It seems that pomegranate juice can block the progression of plaque and actually reverse some of the buildup. This was found in a study where patients drank 8 ounces a day for a year.
Garlic. Garlic helps to reduce an enzyme called angiotensin, which constricts blood vessels. This in turn helps to lower blood pressure. Garlic also seems to have a significant impact on the buildup of plaque. In a study done at UCLA, it was found that plaque progression slowed by more than 50% in people taking garlic extract.
Red wine. Compounds in red wine called polyphenols help keep blood vessels flexible and reduce the risk of unwanted clotting. But don’t have more than one glass a day—alcohol can increase the risk of breast cancer in women and chronic heavy drinking damages the heart. In this case, more is not better.
You can help your heart by taking vitamins and supplements, no doubt. But it’s always best to get your nutrients by eating the real food. And you can’t disease-proof your heart just by adding chocolate, wine, and nuts to a diet full of high-fat foods and refined carbohydrates. The sugar and refined flour in our baked products, pizzas, and sodas, which have no fiber or other nutrients, go right from our mouths into our bloodstream where they deliver a triple dose of heart damage: they raise harmful triglycerides, lower protective HDL cholesterol, and raise blood pressure.
The key is to get back to eating simple foods, simply. If you have a history or family history of heart disease, you CAN help prevent problems with a healthy diet! Show yourself and your family love by eating and serving heart-healthy food.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Blessings to you,