February is National Heart Health Month. Only 1/2 of all heart attack and stroke victims have elevated cholesterol levels. There are other factors that can lead to cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and elevated blood sugars. A heart healthy diet can help to keep your heart and circulatory system healthy, flexible and clear.
Key Factors for a Heart Healthy Diet
A heart healthy diet is one that does not raise blood pressure, blood sugars or triglycerides. It keeps LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) low and HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) high. A heart healthy diet supports good immune function by discouraging clotting and reducing oxidative stress within the blood vessels. All of these factors help to keep your heart and circulatory system healthy, flexible and clear.
Key Nutrients of a Heart Healthy Diet
These fats help to reduce LDL cholesterol levels when eaten in moderation in place of saturated or trans-fats. Unsaturated fats are found in fish such as trout, salmon, herring as well as in avocados, olives, walnuts, and vegetable oils (olive, canola, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and corn).
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
These fats are found within fish as well as plant foods such as walnuts, flax seeds, and wheat germ. They are thought to help make the endothelial cells healthier and stronger by improved vasodilation and decreased inflammation of the blood vessels.
These nutrients are abundant in fruits and veggies. Eating the colors of the rainbow help to increase antioxidant intake, which helps to reduce LDL oxidation. By reducing LDL oxidation, inflammation is lower which helps to prevent plaque buildup. Flavonoid antioxidants such as those found in cocoa and red wine can help to decrease inflammation, increase HDL cholesterol levels, and stimulate nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide is a key trigger of vasodilation which can help lower blood pressure and reduce blood clotting. Vitamin C and Vitamin E are powerful antioxidants. Vitamin C is critical in keeping blood vessels flexible, while Vitamin E promotes healthy circulation by decreasing the risk of platelets becoming sticky and thus forming clots within the arteries or veins.
B6, B12 and folic acid help to break down a component called homocysteine in the body. This is important because homocysteine can damage the vascular endothelium and promote atherosclerosis. B vitamins can be found in whole grains, fortified cereals, fruits, veggies, and lean cuts of meat.
Fiber Rich Foods
Many fiber rich foods are naturally high in antioxidants, B vitamins and unsaturated fat. Fiber is found in whole grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds. Fiber can help to lower LDL cholesterol by acting as a sponge within the intestines during digestion. Fiber soaks up the cholesterol and carts it away within the feces. Fiber also is a key nutrient in the control of blood sugar and it supports weight loss, by allowing people to feel more satisfied following a fiber rich meal.
Putting It All Together
Overall, a heart healthy diet is one that includes plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, poultry, nuts and seeds. Sodium intake is low, red meat is limited, and beverages high in sugar are minimal.
Heart Healthy Meal Ideas
Breakfast: Oatmeal topped with low-fat plain Greek yogurt, berries, walnuts and pieces of 85% cocoa chocolate. Served with 8 oz. unsweetened vanilla almond milk.
Lunch: Whole wheat pita filled with hummus, lettuce, tomato, red onion and cucumber. Served with a side of carrot sticks, fruit salad and 8 oz. water.
Dinner: Grilled salmon with zucchini, onions, and mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and 1/2 of a large baked sweet potato drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with walnuts and cinnamon. Served with 5 oz. red wine.