These 8 nutrient-rich foods are good for your heart
There’s a lot more to heart health than cutting out junk food.Credit:iStock.
As the saying goes, the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. While that may very well be true, there’s scientific evidence that proves the reverse is even more important. One of the top ways to a happy, healthy heart is through the foods you eat. A diet high in the right nutrients can help reduce your risk of heart disease. What should you be putting on your plate? These eight nutrient-rich foods are a great place to start.
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of a heart-healthy diet and can be found in abundance in oily fish. “Omega-3s are important for heart health as they slow the build-up of fatty material on the inner walls of blood vessels (known as atherosclerosis),” says nutritionist Josh Reed. He also notes that omega-3s can prevent platelets in the blood from sticking together and causing clots, as well as decrease blood triglyceride levels – a type of fat that influences heart disease. Dietician and nutritionist Marika Day recommends including oily fishes like salmon and sardines as part of your heart-healthy diet two to three times a week, in line with Heart Foundation guidelines.
A rich source of lycopene – the free radical-fighting antioxidant that gives tomatoes their red colour – Reed recommends crushing and cooking tomatoes (especially with olive oil) to allow the lycopene to be more easily absorbed into the body.
“Nutritionally, oats are one of the best grains out there as they contain low GI carbohydrates, are rich in fibre, include unsaturated fats, and are good sources of B vitamins (thiamin and niacin) and vitamin E,” says Reed. Your cholesterol levels are important for determining heart health risks; beta glucan found in oats can help keep cholesterol in check. Day explains, “Beta-glucan binds to cholesterol and prevents cholesterol reabsorption in the gut. This can have positive effects in those with elevated cholesterol, particularly LDL cholesterol.”
Good to know: LDL, or low-density lipoproteins, is a type of cholesterol that puts the heart at risk, which is why it’s often referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’. When LDL levels are too high, cholesterol can build up in the arteries and cause blockages. Whereas HDL (high-density lipoproteins) are known as ‘good cholesterol’ because they transport excess cholesterol from around your body to your liver for disposal.
“Berries are full of polyphenols, which are a type of phytonutrient that helps reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Day. “Polyphenols are known to reduce LDL and increase HDL. The process by which this happens is largely thought to be through antioxidant properties.” Reed adds that numerous studies have found that a high consumption of anthocyanins, like those found in berries, is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, potentially because they may be able to affect blood pressure, arterial stiffness, and inflammation.
Also known as linseeds, “The heart health benefits of flaxseeds are strongly attributed to their oil content, which is made up of 55 per cent alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): an essential omega-3 fatty acid. Studies show that those who eat more ALA have a lower risk of heart attacks, as well as heart disease,” says Reed. To boost your daily intake, Day advises eating ground flaxseeds for optimal benefits and suggests mixing them into porridge for a nutty flavour. The Heart Foundation says you can eat about one gram per day of plant-sourced omega-3 (ALA) on top of any omega-3s you may be getting from marine based sources.
Most nuts are loaded with healthy nutrients like unsaturated fats, protein and fibre, but when it comes to keeping your heart healthy, almonds and walnuts are among the best. Reed recommends almonds as a top choice due to their high content on vitamin E, which may assist in preventing plaque build-up in arteries, in addition to beta-sitosterol – a plant sterol that can block the absorption of cholesterol into the body.
“To obtain the heart healthy benefits of nuts, aim for 30-50g of unsalted nuts each day; which equals close to a small handful.” Day advocate walnuts due to their high content of omega-3 fatty acids, which assist in lowering blood triglycerides. Why unsalted? When adapting a diet to be heart-friendly, Day notes that reducing sodium intake and increasing potassium levels is imperative. “A moderate to high potassium diet and low sodium diet is known to help reduce blood pressure, one of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” she explains.
Besides the usual vitamins and minerals you find in green vegetables, what makes spinach so heart-friendly is its high levels of folate, nitrate and magnesium. “Nitrates are converted into nitric oxide in the body, which act to dilate blood vessels (known as vasodilation) and decrease blood pressure,” explains Reed. Folate reduces the risk of heart disease by decreasing blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine: “Elevated homocysteine levels are associated with the hardening of arteries, as well as more blood clots,” says Reed. As for magnesium, spinach is one of the few vegetables that contains such high amounts of it. “Magnesium is important for cardiovascular health as is it is involved in proper nerve and muscle signalling, energy production, as well as playing a key role in the body’s antioxidative pathways. Magnesium deficiency has been implicated in hypertension, cardiac arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy,” notes Reed.
Reed says broccoli is one of the most underrated vegetables, praising it for its rich source of vitamins, minerals, fibre and bioactive compounds. “Just one cup of broccoli contains more than your total daily requirement for vitamin C.” Broccoli is also rich in glucoraphanin, a bioactive compound that is converted into a strong antioxidant, sulforaphane, during digestion. “Some studies indicate that sulforaphane may help to reduce blood glucose levels, cholesterol levels, oxidative stress, as well as reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Reed. But he warns that boiling or microwaving broccoli will alter broccoli’s nutrient profile, so stick to eating it raw or steamed.
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