In today's Western society it's much easier, and not to mention quicker, to spend a few bucks at the McDonald's across the street than it is to make a satisfying dinner. In a world of Big Macs, KFC and Häagen-Dazs ice cream, who really wants to eat their spinach and celery sticks? As a result, however, our fat-filled diets have brought about an epidemic of heart disease, which has become North America’s No. 1 killer. Fortunately, over the years scientists and nutritionists have studied the foods that are good for the heart, and some of these might come as a surprise. So, here's a list of the best heart foods that you should include in your diet, and maybe it will help you avoid a trip to the doctor’s.
Oats belong to a larger category of foods referred to as whole grains. Whole grains contain the entire kernel as opposed to refined grains that have been processed to remove the bran and the germ. While this process allows certain grains to last longer on store shelves, it also removes much of the good stuff like B vitamins, vitamin E, fiber, and antioxidants.
Oats, in particular, as found in your morning oatmeal, contain a soluble fiber known as beta-glucan that decreases the total cholesterol in your blood as well as your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. This is important because it is the LDL or "bad" cholesterol that’s responsible for heart attacks. Some studies that required people's diets to be supplemented with oat bran showed a decrease in total cholesterol by as much as 18 percent while others have found a drop in LDL cholesterol by as much as 9 percent.
In addition, whole grains have a low glycemic index, which is a measure of how high a food raises your blood sugar level. Foods with a low glycemic index have a clear health advantage, particularly in helping to prevent diabetes (a major risk factor for coronary heart disease). Next time you reach for that cereal bar for breakfast, maybe you should reconsider and make a bowl of oatmeal.
Want to have your cake and eat it too? Then drink red wine. In moderation (4 to 8 ounces/day), red wine is cardio-protective. This effect comes from antioxidants found in red wine, particularly resveratrol. This compound found in grape extracts has several beneficial effects on the heart, including reducing LDL as well as total blood cholesterol. Moreover, resveratrol, as well as other polyphenols found in red wine, have been shown to reduce blood clots by inhibiting a component found in blood known as platelets. Similar to the action of aspirin, which is one of the mainstay therapies in heart attack prevention, red wine helps to prevent platelets from clumping together, which is a key event in coronary artery blockage.
More recent scientific studies have shown that red wine has the ability to relax arteries and, therefore, lower your blood pressure. In addition, wine consumption is also associated with lower levels of C-reactive protein, which is a marker of coronary vessel inflammation. This means that drinking wine could decrease your risk of CHD.
Spinach, and many other green leafy vegetables such as lettuce, contains folate, also known as vitamin B9. Although folate deficiency is well known for its effects in causing spinal malformations in newborns, recent studies reveal that folate may have a role in heart disease by reducing circulating levels of homocysteine in the blood. High homocysteine levels increase your risk of heart attacks as well as stroke; therefore, increasing your dietary intake of folate-containing foods may help reduce the risk of CHD.
In general, a diet rich in vegetables as well as fruit can significantly reduce hypertension, a major risk factor for CHD. In the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension study, those who consumed more fruits and vegetables showed a drop in blood pressure over only an eight-week period.
Almonds and other nuts are a rich source of mono and polyunsaturated fats that can not only reduce total cholesterol but also raise your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol. Almonds also contain phytosterols that are naturally occurring plant steroids that block the intestinal tract from absorbing all types of fats. In 2003, the FDA claimed that “foods containing at least [a] 0.4-gram per serving of plant sterols, eaten twice a day with meals for a daily total intake of at least 0.8 grams as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” One pooled study showed that subjects in the group with the highest nut consumption had reduced their risk of CHD by 35 percent.
One drawback of almonds and other nuts, however, is that they are calorie-rich, so not more than a handful of nuts should be consumed per day.
Salmon and other fish are the foods with probably the most scientific evidence for heart protection. The active ingredient in salmon is omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce risk of CHD by several mechanisms including reducing blood pressure, blocking platelet function and clot formation, and preventing plaque formation in artery walls. One study in the Netherlands following men over a 20-year period showed an obvious inverse relationship between fish consumption and CHD.
Omega-3 fatty acids also help to regulate the electrical activity of the heart, thereby reducing the likelihood of sudden cardiac death. How much fish do you need to eat to reap these benefits? Only two or more servings of fish per week have been associated with a reduced risk of CHD by as much as 30 percent.
Healthy eating requires a change in behavior as much as a change in what we eat. For example, simply substituting foods with trans fats with unsaturated (mono or polyunsaturated) fats have been shown in some studies to reduce the risk of diabetes. Similar benefits can be met by replacing red meats with fish and poultry. Diet is only one modifiable factor in the development of coronary heart disease, and so we have to remember that regular exercise and smoking cessation should always be incorporated in promoting a healthy lifestyle.