Healthy Eating: Five foods for your heart

Find out which foods can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol and improve your overall cardiovascular health.

By KATHRYN RUBIN
June 22, 2011 15:17
[illustrative photo]

Avocado and grapefruit insert. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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An apple a day will keep the doctor away, but did you know that including certain foods in your daily diet may help keep the cardiac surgeon away?

The typical healthy resting heart rate in adults is 60–80 beats per minute – this means your heart will beat 3600 to 4800 times per hour. That’s 86,400 to 115,200 times a day! And that’s when you are not moving at all! Imagine how many times it will beat when you go for a walk? Or even a run? Every single second, the heart pumps blood throughout your body – even when you are sleeping. From the day you are born to the day you die, your heart never stops working. Quite a lot of pressure for an organ that is no bigger than the size of your fist, no?

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Most of us know that in order to care for our heart, we should watch and limit our intake of sodium as well as foods that are high in trans and saturated fats. But did you know that adding certain foods to your daily regime can actually help you naturally lower your blood pressure, reduce your cholesterol and improve your cardiovascular health?

Find out how these five (surprising) foods can help you keep heart disease away:

HAAS AVOCADOS

Most of us have heard that avocados are extremely high in calories and fat – and while this health rumor is technically true (a medium size Haas avocado does contain over 300 calories and 29 grams of fat), the fat inside an avocado is mostly the healthy monounsaturated type. It may seem contradictory that a fat can be good for you, and your heart specifically, however it is in fact true. Unlike saturated fats, which raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol, unsaturated fats, such as the monounsaturated fat found inside avocados (as well as olive oil), lower LDL cholesterol while raising HDL (good) cholesterol.

It is common knowledge that high cholesterol levels are extremely dangerous and can lead to cardiovascular disease, so why do we want to raise one of them? Unlike LDL cholesterol, which causes plaque to build up on arterial walls, HDL cholesterol helps to remove LDL cholesterol from the blood, thus decreasing the risk of heart disease. In fact, high levels of LDL cholesterol and low levels of HDL cholesterol are often associated with increased risk of heart disease and strokes. While it is crucial to keep your cholesterol levels within the recommended guidelines, research has now shown that it is equally important (if not more so) to maintain an optimal ratio of LDL to HDL of 2:1 or 3:1 (definitely less than 4:1). Substituting harmful saturated fats, such as butter or margarine in your sandwich, with healthy monounsaturated fats, such as an avocado, is an excellent way to start.

GARLIC

GarlicWhile garlic is believed to fend off vampires, did you also know that it can ward off heart disease? Studies have shown that garlic helps to reduce blood triglycerides as well as total cholesterol. However, lowering cholesterol and triglycerides is not the only method that garlic uses to fight off heart disease. Compounds within garlic have been shown to protect blood cells and blood vessels from inflammation and oxidative stress – the combination of which increases ones risk of unwanted plaque formation and clogging. Moreover, recent studies have shown that this allium vegetable may act much like prescription blood thinners, as it may help to prevent clots from forming inside of our blood vessels. Finally, garlic offers another direct benefit to the heart as studies have shown that it may have the ability to lower blood pressure. High blood pressure is a risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke, the first and the third leading causes of death in the United States respectively, accounting for more than 40 percent of all deaths.

OLD FASHIONED OATMEAL

OatmealHands down, one of the best sources of carbohydrates, old fashioned oatmeal is low in fat, contains no sugar and is packed to the brim with dietary fiber, including a specific type of fiber known as beta-glucan. Once inside the digestive tract, beta-glucan changes into a dense gel-like substance that binds with excess cholesterol, thereby helping to prevent its absorption. Studies have shown that including old fashioned oatmeal or other sources of beta glucan can help decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol as well as total cholesterol levels, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. However, not all oatmeal is created equally – stay clear of instant “flavoured” oatmeal, which are typically loaded with sugar and can do more harm than good.

SPINACH

SpinichA dark green vegetable, spinach is rich in numerous beneficial nutrients, including Vitamin K, manganese, magnesium and folate. A member of the B vitamins, folate has many positive effects on the body including helping to reduce the risk coronary heart disease as it decreases blood homocysteine levels. Elevated levels of homocysteine are believed to contribute to heart disease as they damage the lining of the blood vessels. While the research has yet to confirm that elevated homocysteine levels actually cause heart disease, numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between increased blood levels of homocysteine and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Magnesium, another nutrient found abundantly in spinach, is an essential mineral needed for proper nerve and muscle function, blood sugar regulation, bone health, immune system maintenance as well as the maintaining of normal blood pressure levels. While studies have proven inconclusive, some believe that magnesium can even help lower blood pressure.

DARK CHOCOLATE

Dark chocolateThis one may come as a surprise, as chocolate is typically high in artery clogging saturated fats; however, the cocoa bean is actually rich in many beneficial nutrients, including flavanoids, the potent anti-oxidant found in red wine. Studies have shown that the flavanoids found in dark chocolate, called flavonols, significantly reduce LDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and improve blood flow. Moreover, while dark chocolate may be high in fat, it may not be as bad as it seems. Cocoa butter is made up of three acids: stearic acid, oleic acid and palmitic acid. The first, oleic acid, is a monounsaturated fat, and so is actually good for your heart. The second, stearic acid, is a saturated fat; however unlike other saturated fats, it does not increase LDL cholestrol and has a neutral affect on blood cholesterol levels. In fact, palmitic acid is the only fatty acid in cocoa butter that has a harmful affect on blood cholesterol levels. However, having said this, when it comes to dark chocolate and any chocolate for that matter, moderation is key – as it is still high in calories and sugar.
 
So how much dark chocolate is enough? According to MayoClinic.com, six grams of dark chocolate per day (equivalent to one small square) which contains around 30 calories, will provide all the health benefits without raising other risks. However, in order for the benefits to truly outweigh the costs, consume dark chocolate that is at least 70% or more cocoa (by weight) as the darker and purer the chocolate the more disease fighting nutrients it contains.

Remember when it comes to cardiovascular health, it is equally important to reduce and eliminate as much as possible foods that are high in trans and saturated fats, salt, and just plain old calories.

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