Making heart-healthy food choices is a very important part of an overall strategy when it comes to preventing, or at least significantly delaying, cardiovascular disease including heart disease, stroke and dementia while minimizing the impact of any existing disease of the blood vessels. Diet can help to improve the ratio of blood lipids, or blood fats, including total, LDL and HDL cholesterol, as well as, triglycerides.
Total cholesterol: HDL cholesterol
HDL cholesterol:LDL cholesterol
Triglycerides: HDL cholesterol
The ratio of these lipids [rarely to never talked about during your check-up] is far more important than just the level of the LDL cholesterol [the sole focus of a doctor’s visit and which medication decisions are based on]. Diet can also help to prevent cardiovascular disease by reducing other important risk factors such as high blood pressure, overweight and obesity, reducing the incidence of insulin resistance, and helping to manage existing diabetes.
Diet also protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation, a pivotal first step in plaque formation, thereby making LDL less atherosclerotic. Oxidation is like what happens when an iron nail rusts or an apple core goes brown. When LDL cholesterol rusts and enters your blood vessels, it leads to inflammation, damage and scarring..hello atherosclerosis.
Antioxidants do more than rust proof your body. They improve and maintain endothethial function, or the ability of blood vessels to expand and relax; key to maintaining healthy blood flow and pressure. Finally antioxidants and phytonutrients extend their protection to the lining of the blood vessel too. Reaping these benefits are easy when you choose the right foods.
9 ways to love your cardiovascular system, brain and heart with food!
1. Cold water fish
Sardines, salmon, herring, trout and mackerel are by far the best sources of the heart healthy omega-3 fats: EPA and DHA. While white fish such as halibut, light tuna or cod etc is better than not including any fish, the rule of thumb is, the fattier the fish, the better [more omega-3 fats per serving]. Omega-3 fats have been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke. They help to reduce triglycerides [a type of blood fat and independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease], inflammation and to help keep the blood ‘thin’ so that it can flow through the arteries and veins more easily. Omega-3 fats also increase the production of nitric oxide, a gas that helps the blood vessels to expand & relax. Aim to have at least 3 oz of sustainable fish, three times a week.
2. Ground flax, chia or salba
These seeds are a great source of fiber which can help to keep blood cholesterol, blood sugar, and therefore triglycerides, balanced and in a healthy range. As a bonus, the fiber helps to promote regularity. These foods are also a great source of the plant-based omega-3 fat called alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. ALA is an essential fat needed to optimize health and flax and chia/salba are also a great source of antioxidants which help to reduce LDL oxidation and oxidative damage of the blood vessels. Aim to have 2 – 3 tablespoons per day.
3. Tomatoes and tomato products
Cooked tomato products such as paste sauce, paste and juice are a great source of highly absorbable lycopene; a carotenoid like beta-carotene. Higher intake of carotenoids has been shown to protect against coronary heart disease. Lycopene, the most potent of the carotenoid-antioxidants, reduces LDL oxidation. Oxidation is responsible for making LDL cholesterol more ‘sticky’, enhancing atherosclerosis. Include tomato products weekly and/or at least four half cup servings of tomato juice or vegetable cocktail a week.
4. Kale, spinach, collard greens and more
Dark leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collage greens, Swiss Chard etc. are the best sources of lutein, another carotenoid. Lutein, like all carotenoids, is a powerful antioxidant but research is showing that lutein has the unique ability to reduce the thickness of blood vessels which is the result of cholesterol build-up within the artery walls. Something referred to as intimal thickness, the technical term for plaques. In simplest terms; lutein helps to reverse some of the narrowing of blood vessels. Aim to have at least three half cup servings per week. For more on lutein and health, see my other posts, Kale. Your Ally Against Heart Disease And Macular Degeneration and Lutein. The Next Big Thing In Brain Health?
5. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate contains cocoa. Cocoa is a source of phytochemicals called polyphenols. Some 4000 different types of polyphenols have been identified in nature and they are also abundant in tea, apples, berries, olives, olive and hemp oils, grapes and red wine. Cocoa polyphenols have been shown to increase blood flow, reduce platelet aggregation [think less sticky blood cells], are powerful antioxidants and like lutein have been shown to reduce intimal thickness [see my post for more detail]. Just 40g of 70% dark chocolate a day will do. I prefer 85% dark chocolate for more ‘bang for your buck’. More on cocoa health benefits and how it might help with cognitive function.
6. Green tea
All tea has more of those awesome polyphenols but green tea has the most. Matcha green tea is even better. This is what’s used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The dried green tea leaves are ground into a fine powder and because the whole tea leaf is consumed, the amount of polyphenols one gets is enormously more than that of bagged green tea. Drink daily
Dark, richly coloured berries and fruit such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, as well as, purple grapes, acai and pomegranate are rich in antioxidants which have been shown to reduce LDL oxidation and reduce inflammation – key to reducing the risk for heart disease. Aim to have one half cup serving daily.
8. Raw nuts and seeds
By keeping them raw, nuts and seeds maintain higher amounts of vitamin E. Nuts and seeds are also a great source of phytochemicals and magnesium, a mineral that helps to relax blood vessels, opening them up for greater blood flow. These are high in calories, so the amount one can eat depends on one’s energy requirements but almost everyone can afford to have a quarter cup each day.
9. Wheat germ and wheat germ oil
Wheat germ is the best food source of natural vitamin E. Try to use raw wheat germ where possible, vitamin E is heat sensitive. Vitamin E helps to reduce LDL and blood vessel oxidation. Wheat germ oil comes as supplements. Wheat germ can be sprinkled on salads, stirred into yogurt, smoothies or oatmeal. Aim for 2-3 teaspoons per day. While not food, a good quality full spectrum vitamin E supplement, one that contains all 8 isomers [different forms] of vitamin E, has been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease. The only brand I recommend is Total E by Advanced Orthomolecular Research.