Heart-healthy foods to add to your weekly menu
In each EatWell issue we explore some foods that are good for specific health outcomes. Here, we discover foods that are good for your heart.
Over the course of a year your heart will beat about 42 million times as it pumps vital blood through the 100,000km of blood vessels that your body contains. Your heart works hard and the least you can do is support it with the foods that will keep it healthy. Foods that are good for your heart will reduce risk factors like high cholesterol and blood pressure as well as providing the nutrients that support the heart in its busy metabolic work.
The Mediterranean Diet you hear so much about features fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil, fish, herbs and red wine in moderation. There are many positive health outcomes that arise from this diet and it is certainly very good for your heart.
Foods like olive oil, fish, nuts and avocadoes are rich in unsaturated fatty acids. Foods like lettuce, spinach, celery and carrots are rich in nitrites and nitrates. When you consume these foods together, the unsaturated fatty acids and the nitrogen compounds form substances known as nitro fatty acids. These block an enzyme called “soluble epoxide hydrolase”, causing blood vessels to dilate (open up) and leading to a drop in blood pressure.
If blood pressure is lowered, the risk of developing cardiovascular problems like heart attack, heart failure and stroke is lowered.
Fish is a healthy source of protein and it provides beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that the high levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are associated with up to a 40 per cent reduction in risk of developing heart disease. High docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) levels are linked to a lower risk of death from stroke and high levels of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are linked to a decrease in risk of non-fatal heart attack. Eating fish rich in these omega-3 fats can dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease. It has been shown, for instance, that where there is an increase of 15 grams per day in fish consumption, the risk of heart failure is reduced by five per cent.
Nuts in their raw form provide fibre, healthy fats, and a range of nutrients. They also contain sterols which have been shown to lower cholesterol levels. Nuts are a rich source of alpha-linolenic-acid (ALA) which your body converts to the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. The United States Food and Drug Administration say that eating 42g of nuts daily can reduce heart disease risk. Of course, you need to avoid the roasting and the salting, but go for raw nuts and they will be good for your heart.
It is no surprise that moderate wine drinking is good for your heart. We know that grapes contain polyphenols that have an antioxidant effect, including a substance known as resveratrol which has been shown to have heart-protective effects. These polyphenols survive in wine and non-alcoholic grape drinks. Studies suggest that one to two glasses of wine a day can be good for your heart by increasing good HDL cholesterol levels while reducing overall cholesterol levels. Wine can also cause blood vessels in the heart to expand (dilate), which makes blood flow easier. Some say that it might be the alcohol rather than anything inherent in the grapes that confer the benefits, but that is just wishful thinking. Alcohol from other sources does not provide the benefits that wine does, so it does seem that the grapes are the crucial element.
Part of the virtue of oats is the fact that they are less processed than other grains often are. Oats have the hard, indigestible outer layer removed but generally all other layers are retained. For this reason, they retain good levels of fibre and comparatively high levels of nutrients. The fibre found in oats is water soluble and it contains beta-glucan, a polysaccharide linked to many of the benefits that oats have to offer.
Three to six grams of beta-glucan from oats daily significantly reduces bad LDL cholesterol. The beta-glucan content of oat bran concentrate is usually between 15 and 35 per cent of dry weight. So to get the beta-glucan you need each day to balance your cholesterol, you need anywhere from half to one cup of rolled oats.
Water-soluble fibre also lowers blood cholesterol by binding bile acids (which are made from cholesterol) and then taking the bile acids out of the body as the fibre is excreted. Through their beta-glucan and soluble fibre content, oats offer double heart protection.
Spinach provides fibre, protein, vitamin K, vitamin C, iron, beta-carotene and a lot more. Maybe the most famous ingredient in spinach is iron and it does have levels around double that of other plants. Iron is the essential component of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around your body in your blood. Spinach is also a very good source of nitrate, so will help maintain blood flow.