By Jeannie VersaglI, RD, LDN, and Kristen Troy
No one expects that they will develop heart disease when there isn’t a family history. However, every year many people find out through routine blood work that they are at risk for developing heart disease, which results in nearly one-third of all deaths worldwide. Aside from family history, one of the most significant contributors to the risk of developing heart disease is long-term poor dietary habits. Maintaining poor diet habits can lead to several conditions associated with heart disease. These include high blood pressure, elevated lipid levels, diabetes, and obesity.
Since long-term poor dietary habits can have a negative impact on health, especially an increased risk of heart disease, let’s look at how nutrition and diet can help us prevent it with what foods to incorporate and what foods to limit.
The American Heart Association advises that individuals consume a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins. Incorporating these into your diet can be simple; in fact, you can do this by adding “superfoods” into your diet. Superfoods contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, soluble fiber, calcium, polyphenols and catechins, B vitamins like B6 and folic acid. Scientific studies have shown these compounds can lower inflammation and cholesterol. They can also slow the formation of plaque in the blood vessels, improve blood pressure, reduce the risk of developing blood clots, and prevent heart arrhythmia. Let’s examine some of the nutritional properties with why they are beneficial to reducing heart disease and what superfoods contain them.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are known to decrease triglyceride counts in the blood. Triglycerides are the main component of body fat. Therefore, superfoods containing omega-3 fatty acids help lower triglycerides and lower the risk of abnormal heart rhythm. Chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and flaxseeds are superfoods containing these fatty acids. In addition, several fish contain these fatty acids, including salmon, lake trout, sardines, anchovies, and herring. Lastly, several nuts also contain these compounds – including almonds, walnuts, and pecans.
Flavanoids & Vitamin C
Flavonoids work to lower blood pressure and dilate blood vessels, increasing the body’s ability to circulate blood, and Vitamin C aids in preventing plaque buildup. Superfoods rich in these two compounds include blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, acai, and blackberries. In addition, cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, Bok choy, and cabbage, provide good sources of Vitamin C.
Soluble fiber helps lower LDL cholesterol, often called “the bad cholesterol,” because it can stick to arteries, assist in the formation of plaque, and sometimes block blood flow. Beans, pulses, legumes, and oatmeal are all foods rich in soluble fibers that can help lower LDL cholesterol.
Polyphenols and Catechins
These antioxidants prevent cell damage by protecting the heart and preventing heart disease. Green tea has a high level of these antioxidants. At an American Heart Association scientific session in early 2016, researchers found that individuals who drank green tea have fewer major heart events like heart attack and stroke. Another study that reinforces the positive effects of green tea, more specifically catechins, was published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in August 2007. The study found that the most abundant catechin in green tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), improves heart health and metabolism.
Foods to Limit
Foods to enjoy only in moderation include processed meats such as bacon, sausage, pepperoni, ham, red meats, fried foods, sweets, and refined starches. The American Heart Association suggests that less than 6% of total daily calories should come from saturated fats and avoid trans fats. It is also important to be mindful of limiting salt intake. Aim to consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day as a healthy adult. However, newer guidelines are now moving to lower that value to 1,500 mg for most adults, especially for those with preexisting health conditions such as cardiovascular disease.
Nutritional choices impact your health. Eating superfoods and a Mediterranean diet provide the heart the support it needs to remain healthy. As science continues to advance in the field of nutrition, we understand the direct correlation between foods and personal health. Nutrition continues to be your path to wellness.
For questions on a heart-healthy diet, contact HAC’s registered dietitians for guidance.