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Heart Healthy Foods

The heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout our body.

The heart:

  • Is about the size of your two hands clasped together, yet it supplies every cell and organ in the body with oxygenated blood (except the corneas that get oxygen directly from the air)
  • Pumps blood through 100,000 Km (60,000 miles) of blood vessels.
  • Beats about 100,000 times a day
  • Pumps about 1.5 gallons (5.7 litres) of blood per minute

What an amazing organ! Yet, what do we do to protect it? In fact, what do we even do to prevent it from damage? Often very little.

Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the National Center for Health Statistics of the CDC, in 2020 heart disease claimed about 690,000 lives, closely followed by cancer with 598,000 deaths. 1 (Ahmad 2020)

How do you stay away from these scary statistics?

You adopt a heart healthy lifestyle, which will also help you prevent cancer.

What is at the root of heart disease?

Chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is good and necessary to heal, however when it becomes chronic it will affect every organ in your body and especially the heart. Chronic inflammation is also one of the biggest contributors to cancer development.

How to reduce and prevent chronic inflammation and therefore reduce your risk for heart disease?

One of the simplest ways is by changing your diet and implementing more anti-inflammatory foods.

And here is where we come to the rescue! We will take out the guesswork and share with you our top heart healthy foods!

6 Heart Healthy Foods

 

 

 

6 heart healthy foods

1.  Leafy Greens

Don’t forget to eat your greens! – something you probably heard quite a few times from your parents or grandparents.

Indeed, leafy greens are a powerhouse of nutrition, with plenty of vitamins, minerals and good amounts of fiber. They are also rich in antioxidants, phytochemicals and enzymes that help combat free radical damage, detoxify the body, lower inflammation and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

Leafy greens include spinach, swiss chard, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard, carrot and beet greens. Leafy greens provide you with great amounts of vitamin A but also vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K and folic acid. Vitamin K specifically has been proven to promote cardiovascular health by protecting the arteries and proper blood clotting, and also to improve heart structure and function. 2,3 (Douthit 2017, Maresz 2015) Furthermore, studies show that prolonged sub-clinical vitamin K deficiency is a risk factor for osteoporosis, atherosclerosis, and cancer. 4 (Vermeer 2012)

Many leafy greens also belong to the cruciferous vegetables, the Brassica family. For example, kale, arugula, bok choy, collard greens and mustard greens are cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables are full of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents and are the dietary source of glucosinolates, sulfur-containing compounds that are broken down into metabolites, such as isothiocyanates. These compounds trigger specific enzymatic reactions, that contribute to detoxification processes and are linked to cancer prevention. Many also contain sulforaphanes and indoles, two types of strong antioxidants and stimulators of detoxifying enzymes that protect the structure of DNA.

Some studies show that the consumption of green leafy vegetables, including cruciferous vegetables, is linked to reduced incidence and risk of cardiovascular disease. 5,6 (Pollock 2016, Bendinelli 2011)

2.  Avocados

Avocados are a very nutritious fruit, containing a wide variety of essential nutrients, including 20 different vitamins and minerals, important phytochemicals, monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and dietary fiber. Avocado consumption is associated with improved overall diet quality, nutrient intake, and reduced risk of metabolic syndrome. 7 (Fulgoni 2013)

Avocados contain: 8 (Dreher 2013).

  • Significant levels of dietary fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K1, folate, vitamin B-6, B-3 (niacin), B-5 (pantothenic acid), B2 (riboflavin), choline, lutein/zeaxanthin, phytosterols, and MUFA rich oil (oleic acid).
  • Small amounts of manganese, copper, iron, zinc, phosphorous and vitamin B-1 (thiamine).
  • 30% soluble fiber and 70% insoluble fiber.
  • Avocado oil consists of 71% monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), 13% polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), and 16% saturated fatty acids (SFA).

One of the most essential nutrients for heart health is potassium. One avocado contains about 975 milligrams of potassium, which represent 28% of your daily needs. 9 (Nutrition Data). Potassium helps lower blood pressure, and this reduction of BP significantly lowers the incidence of stroke, coronary heart disease, myocardial infarction, and other cardiovascular events. 10 (Houston 2011) Avocados also contain good amounts of the antioxidant carotenoid lutein that helps control oxidative and inflammatory stress. 8 (Dreher 2013)

As mentioned above, avocado oil consists of 71% MUFA, 13% PUFA, and 16% SFA. This fat profile helps promote healthy blood lipid profiles and enhance the bioavailability of fat-soluble vitamins and phytochemicals. (Dreher 2013) The heart healthy effects on blood lipids profiles are primarily related to avocado’s low SFA and high-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA and PUFA) content. (Dreher 2013) Mounting data continues to demonstrate the cardioprotective activity of the MUFA content of dietary fat, which has been shown to promote healthy blood lipid profiles, mediate blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity and regulates glucose levels, and may even influence body composition and reduce obesity risk. 11 (Gillingham 2011) Studies also report that avocados have beneficial effects on cardio-metabolic risk factors that extend beyond their heart-healthy fatty acid profile. 12, 8 (Wang 2015, Dreher 2013) For example, the natural phytosterols and dietary fiber may play potential secondary cholesterol lowering roles. 8 (Dreher 2013)

3.  Berries

Colorful, delicious, and super healthy! Blueberries, raspberries, cherries, strawberries, goji berries, camu camu, blackberries, mulberries, elderberries, acai, and more.

Berries have high concentrations of important nutrients, like vitamin C and vitamin A, essential for heart health and are very high in antioxidants, especially in proanthocyanidins, that have anti-aging and free radical damage lowering effects. Berries also have high concentrations of the phytochemical’s anthocyanins (especially black raspberries), that help protect against oxidative stress and inflammation, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disorders. 13 (Zafra-Stone 2007) Besides these important compounds, berries are rich in phenols, zeaxanthin, lycopene, cryptoxanthin, lutein and polysaccharides, which help protect against disease.

Some berries have been shown to improve endothelial function, meaning better function of the cells that line the blood vessels, and to decrease atherosclerotic markers, including dyslipidemia and circulating adhesion molecules, therefore reducing the risk of heart disease. 14, 15 (Stull 2015, Basu 2010)

Furthermore, berry consumption has been associated with reduction in systolic blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol, body mass index and certain markers of inflammation, which led researchers to suggest that the consumption of berries might be utilized as a possible new effective and safe option to prevent and control cardiovascular disease. 16 (Huang 2016)

4.  Cacao or dark chocolate

You are going to like this heart friendly food: dark chocolate! The right type of dark chocolate.

Cacao beans are the dried, fermented, fatty seed of the fruit of the South American evergreen tree Theobroma cacao, also called the “food of the goods”. Cacao is used to make cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate. Cacao and dark chocolate contain vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, and vitamin B6, E, and K and rich in minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium. Cacao is a good source of zinc, iron, copper, manganese and sodium. Provides energy, carbohydrates, protein, and dietary fibers.

Cocoa rich chocolate and cocoa products are high in antioxidant flavonoids and polyphenols. Antioxidants help combat free radical damage, oxidative stress and inflammation. Among flavonoids, flavonols are the main type found in dark chocolate, especially the catechins epicatechin and procyanidin. 17 (Williamson 2017) Numerous studies have shown the heart healthy benefits of flavonols found in cacao, namely improving endothelial function, blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reducing susceptibility of low‐density lipoprotein (LDL) to oxidation. 18 (Cooper 2008) These biomarkers are used to access cardiovascular disease risk, which provides evidence for the protective effect of flavanols against developing chronic cardiovascular conditions. 17 (Williamson 2017)

To corroborate this hypothesis, studies conducted in the US found that the consumption of dark chocolate is inversely related with coronary heart disease 19 (Djoussé 2011) and with calcified atherosclerotic plaque in the coronary arteries (atherosclerosis). 20 (Djousse and Curtis 2011) Dark chocolate seems to help prevent stiffness of the arteries and white blood cell adhesion, two of the mechanisms involved in atherosclerosis, therefore decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. 21 (NHLBI Atherosclerosis)

It is very important to buy good quality chocolate, if possible organic and raw, with high cacao content, at least 85%, and no sugar added (a good alternative stevia).

4.  Tree Nuts (raw or sprouted)

Another delicious healthy food you do not want to miss! Nuts are rich in healthy fatty acids, bioactive compounds and essential nutrients. The compounds found in nuts have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and heart health properties.

Almond, Brazil nut, hazelnut, macadamia nut, pecan, pine nut, pistachio, and walnut are some of the examples of the most consumed nuts in the world. Nuts are a rich source of several essential vitamins and minerals, mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, fiber and a vast array of phytochemicals, like carotenoids, phenols and phytosterols, that contribute to the many health benefits of their consumption. 22 (Bolling 2010)

Nuts can be particularly rich sources of copper (cashews), linoleic acid (pine nuts), α-linolenic acid (walnuts), manganese (hazelnuts), niacin (peanuts), selenium (Brazil nuts), β-sitosterol (pistachios), α-tocopherol (almonds), and γ-tocopherol (pecans). 23 (Chen 2008)

In general, tree nuts provide:

  • Vitamins like folate, niacin and tocopherols, a class of vitamin E compounds, powerful antioxidants that help protect against free radical damage and highly reactive oxygen species (ROS).
  • Minerals: calcium, selenium, potassium and magnesium.
  • Phytochemicals: plant chemicals that include carotenoids, phenolic acids, phytosterols and polyphenolic compounds such as flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, stilbenes, phytates and lignans. These phytochemicals have been associated with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative, antiviral, chemopreventive and hypocholesterolaemic activity. 24 (Bolling 2011)
  • Phytosterols: plant sterols with similar chemical structure to human cholesterol. Due to this similarity, when consumed phytosterols compete with cholesterol for absorption in the digestive system. This leads to a reduction in cholesterol absorption and in blood cholesterol levels. It also helps lower the “bad” low density lipoprotein cholesterol.

The action of the bioactive compounds present in nuts has been associated in slowing the pathogenesis of chronic disease. The important antioxidant capacity of nuts is mainly due to their content of vitamin E, selenium, and phenols. 23 (Chen 2008) Nuts may help reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol, lower diastolic blood pressure and decrease oxidative stress and inflammation, which helps explain why nut consumption is inversely associated with the incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer. 23 (Chen 2008)

The health benefits of raw nuts are largely associated to the phenolic profiles, total phenolic contents and antioxidant activities of the kernels, and, mostly and interestingly, to the skins. 25 (Taş 2017) This means you should eat your nuts whole and raw or sprouted, and therefore is very important to buy organic.

Seeds share some of the amazing health benefits and cardioprotective effects of nuts. Seeds like chia, flax and hemp are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and other heart friendly nutrients. These types of seeds have been proven to help reduce inflammation, regulate blood pressure and contribute for improved lipid profiles (LDL cholesterol and triglycerides), all factors that reduce the risk of heart disease.

5.  Olives and Olive oil

One of the healthy staples of the Mediterranean diet, olives and olive oil have been broadly studied and proven to have many health benefits. The Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower incidence of atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease and cancer, and some of its health benefits have been attributed to the dietary consumption of virgin olive oil.

Olives are very high in vitamin E and other powerful antioxidants. They are also good sources of iron, copper and calcium. Vitamin E, as mentioned for other fatty plant foods, is a very powerful antioxidant, that helps fight free radical damage and inflammation. Copper is an essential trace element that has a profound influence on mitochondrial and heart metabolism and its deficiency may increase the risk of heart disease. 26, 27 (Rines, 2013, Nath 1997)

Olives are an unusual fruit, low in carbohydrates and high in fats. Only about 5% of the olive is carbohydrates, mostly fibers (about 50 to 80%) and 11 to 15% is fat. Most of these fats are monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), namely oleic acid (74%), the main component of olive oil. Studies have shown that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats reduce LDL and triglycerides and increase HDL cholesterol, and are inversely related with the risk of heart disease. Contrarily, trans fat from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (absent in traditional Mediterranean diets) are strongly related to risk of heart disease. 28 (Willet 2006)

Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is considered one of the many healthful components of the Mediterranean diet, often associated with the reduced incidence of chronic inflammatory disease in Mediterranean populations. The oleic acid present on olive oil has been proven to have many health benefits, including reducing chronic inflammation and the risk of heart problems. These benefits seem to be associated with antiatherogenic properties, such as regulation of cholesterol levels, improved lipid profiles and protection of LDL cholesterol from oxidation 29 (Aviram 1993) and lowering blood pressure 30, 31 (Gilani 2005, Ferrara 2000).

Two large studies conducted in Europe, have confirmed that olive oil consumption, specifically extra-virgin olive oil, is associated with reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and mortality in individuals at high cardiovascular risk 32 (Guasch-Ferré 2014), and inversely associated with both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. 33 (Psaltopoulou 2005)

Virgin olive oil also contains numerous biologically active phenolic compounds that exert positive effects on certain physiological parameters, such as plasma lipoproteins, oxidative damage, inflammatory markers, platelet and cellular function, and antimicrobial activity 34 (Cicerale 2009). One of those compounds is oleocanthal, which has shown anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen. 35, 36 (Parkinson 2014, Lucas 2011) Oleocanthal has been identified as a compound of interest in the goal of identifying therapeutic targets against many chronic inflammatory disease states including cancer, neurodegenerative, and joint degenerative disease. Its efficiency in reducing markers of arthritis, disrupting processes vital to the formation of Alzheimer’s and being a neuro-protective compound has been proven. Impressively, oleocanthal has been shown to reduce the proliferation and migration of cancer cells, and to promote apoptosis in cancer cells as well as preventing tumor induced cell transformation. 35 (Parkinson 2014)

Other antioxidant compounds present in olives and olive oil are oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, oleanolic acid and quercetin, all of which may contribute to lower chronic inflammation and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Fresh olives are very bitter and usually need to be cured and fermented before eating. Choose olives preserved in brine and low in additives. In terms of olive oil, opt for extra virgin olive oil, processed with no heat or chemicals, and more flavorful. Preferentially use it raw, drizzled over your healthy dishes.  In both cases, try to buy organic.

This is a list of super healthy whole foods to get you started on a heart friendly diet. Of course, there are many other anti-inflammatory foods that can be added to this list. For example, you have foods from the Allium family, like garlic and onions, the highly anti-inflammatory turmeric and ginger, herbs, such as cinnamon, cumin or mint, healthy fats, like coconuts and coconut oil, root vegetables, as in delicious sweet potatoes and do not forget the amazing green tea.

Be creative, eat mainly organic and raw whole plant-based foods and healthy fats!

Information is power. With the information we gave you today, is time to change your heart, for the better!


References

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