If you’re thinking, “Why should I worry about heart health?” here’s a reality check: A third of Americans already have some form of the condition. Even if you don’t have a family history of cardiovascular problems, you should take steps to protect your ticker. Why? Because your heart rules the health of every other system in your body.
“Every disease is connected to heart health, including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, diabetes, and breast cancer,” says Mark Moyad, MD, director of preventative and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. “When you protect the heart, you protect the body from head to toe.” Safeguarding your heart means doing simple things such as exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and keeping tabs on your cholesterol and blood pressure. But you could be doing more.
The following tips represent the latest research on the foods, supplements, and mind-body techniques you need now to keep your cardiovascular system strong in the years to come. What you read may save your life.
Eat the Right Foods
“Beyond a doubt, of all the foods out there, fruits and vegetables [which are high in fiber, antioxidants, and compounds that block absorption of bad LDL cholesterol] have the most evidence of being heart protective,” says Ryan Bradley, ND, assistant professor at the Bastyr University School of Naturopathic Medicine in Kenmore, Washington. Pile your plate with produce, and work these nutrients and foods into your diet to shield and nourish your heart.
Not only do high-fiber foods, such as beans, legumes, nuts, and whole grains, help keep off excess pounds by making you feel full, but fiber also binds to excess cholesterol in the digestive tract, helping to usher it out of the body via elimination, Moyad says. More importantly, a 2004 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who ate 10 to 25 grams of soluble fiber daily had low blood levels of C-reactive protein, an indicator of how much inflammation is in the body. Inflammation is a top risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease because it triggers the production of immune cells, which can create plaque that blocks arteries and reduces blood flow to the heart.
Beans and legumes also contain glutamic acid, an amino acid linked to lower blood pressure by a recent study. Aim to eat one to two 1/2-cup servings of a variety of fiber-rich foods each day. Lentils, walnuts, navy beans, oatmeal, almonds, barley, brown rice, quinoa, and air-popped popcorn are excellent choices, Moyad says.
2. Cold-water fish
In addition to being anti-inflammatory, omega-3 fatty acids—the polyunsaturated fats found in fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds—protect against dangerous variations in heart rate and reduce the blood’s clotting ability, making potentially life-threatening blockages in the arteries less likely.
The most potent omega-3 forms, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found only in algae and fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon, halibut, Pacific cod, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies. The American Heart Association recommends eating 6 ounces of omega-3-rich fish twice a week. (For the Environmental Defense Fund’s list of mercury-free and sustainably harvested fish, visit edf.org.) If cardiovascular disease runs in your family, you’re diabetic, or you struggle with high cholesterol or blood pressure, consider supplementing with 1 gram additional omega-3 from fish or algae sources. Stephen Sinatra, MD, author of Reverse Heart Disease Now (Wiley, 2007), says DHA tends to be more anti-inflammatory than EPA.
Potent antioxidants found in intensely colored plant-based foods, polyphenols help stave off atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, by preventing LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and building up. Studies also suggest that polyphenols protect blood-vessel cells, improving blood flow. Foods saturated with polyphenols tend to be high in flavor—think pomegranates, red wine, grape juice, dark chocolate, green tea, cinnamon, turmeric, and ginger. Aim to eat one or two of these foods every day. And add a tablespoon of polyphenol-packed spices that come from bark (cinnamon), seeds (anise or coriander), or roots (turmeric and ginger) to your meals a couple times a week.
More grocery-store basics, such as chips, spreads, and cereals, are incorporating fiber and omega-3-rich seeds like chia into their ingredient lists—and for good reason. A 2007 study found that people with type 2 diabetes who consumed 2.6 tablespoons of fiber plus chia seeds each day experienced significantly reduced blood pressure and C-reactive-protein levels. Stir up to 2 tablespoons of these tiny, mild-tasting seeds, eaten for centuries in Mexico, into yogurt or oatmeal, or sprinkle them on salads. Flaxseeds are nuttier and coarser than chia, but they offer the same heart benefits. Because the body can’t digest flaxseeds whole, grind them in a coffee grinder before eating, or buy flaxseed meal. Hempseeds are another good option.
3 Foods to Avoid
Some of the most important foods for boosting heart health are not the ones you should eat, but rather the ones you should avoid. Here are the top no-no’s.
Aside from triggering LDL cholesterol to build up in your arteries, a diet high in saturated fat greatly increases obesity risk—a co-indicator of heart disease. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends relegating saturated fat to 10 percent or less of your daily calories.
Easy tweaks: Choose grass-fed beef, which has less saturated fat and more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than grain-raised beef, and opt for skim or low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt.
Although some dietary sodium aids proper nerve and muscle function, too much can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke or heart attack. Keep your sodium levels in check by
consuming no more than 2,300 mg a day, says the NIH. If your blood pressure is already high, cut down to 1,500 mg a day.
Easy tweaks: Shun canned and prepackaged foods, and order baked and broiled—never fried—restaurant options.
Because of sugar’s role in obesity and diabetes—conditions that significantly up heart-disease risk—the American Heart Association advises that women get no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day and men limit their intake to 9 teaspoons a day. The average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of sugar per day.
Easy tweaks: Steer clear of soft drinks, fruit juices, and sugar bombs such as ketchup, sweetened dried fruit, and salad dressings.