What does food have to do with a healthy heart, you may ask?
I am eating right you may think. My heart’s in great shape. Most of us associate heart health with physical activity and keeping in shape.
Did you know that heart disease is the world’s number 1 killer? It accounts for one in four deaths. Heart disease is the result of a progressive build-up of plaque in the arteries, leading to the narrowing of the inner walls, restricting and ultimately blocking the flow of blood to the heart. This prevents the flow of blood, cuts off the oxygen supply to the heart and damages or kills the heart cells.
And the frightening part is that in many cases, we may not even know it! Thus, leading to heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases.
So how do you keep our arteries healthy and free of blockages?
Food is directly involved in many of the risk factors for coronary heart disease. Paying attention to what you eat is one of the most important preventative measures you can take. Food is also a natural way to clear blockages and prevent further damage. A number of factors are associated with the build-up of fatty deposits in the coronary arteries, these include smoking, lack of physical activity and a family history of the disease.
Saturated and trans fats increase blood cholesterol and heart attack rates, whilst polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats lower the risk of heart attacks. Examine your diet, you may be eating too many of the unhealthy fats. If you have an ‘apple’ shaped body, then you are at greater risk of heart disease than someone whose body fat tends to settle around their bottom, hips and thighs (a ‘pear’ shaped body).
Regularly check your blood pressure, this should be around 120/80. Hypertension is when the pressure in the arteries is higher than normal. This may be because the arteries are less elastic, there is more blood volume, or more blood is being pumped out of the heart.
A diet high in salt may increase blood pressure and elevate the risk of a heart attack and stroke. Most of us consume more than ten times the amount of salt we need to meet our sodium requirements (table salt contains sodium and chloride).
Monitor the level of sugar in your blood. If you’re consuming a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, your body might be losing its sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels. This may lead to type 2 diabetes, chronically elevated blood sugar levels. Uncontrolled diabetes can damage the artery walls and contribute to coronary heart disease.
Let’s look at some foods that can help keep your arteries healthy.
Certain types of oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, herring and tuna, are rich in the polyunsaturated fat, Omega-3, which can help clear the arteries. This heart-healthy fat can increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol), whilst reducing triglyceride levels, decreasing blood vessel inflammation and the formation of blood clots in the arteries, and can even lower blood pressure. Consuming baked, steamed or grilled oily fish at least twice a week can help reduce plaque build-up. Try to avoid tinned versions as these can contain toxins. Opt for wild-caught, organic, fresh fish. For vegetarians and vegans, walnuts, flaxseeds and olive oil contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol.
Use turmeric liberally in your cooking. It can be used in many dishes, both sweet and savoury. Add to a glass of warm milk every day. And, if you’ve never cooked with it before, now’s the time to get creative for your health!
Curcumin found in turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. Inflammation is a major cause of the hardening of the arteries. Turmeric can reduce damage to arterial walls, which cause blood clots and plaque build-up. Turmeric also contains vitamin B6, which helps to maintain healthy levels of homocysteine, a broken-down protein. High levels can cause plaque build-up and blood vessel damage.
Switch to whole grains right away, these include whole-grain bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, barley and oatmeal. These grains contain soluble fibre, that binds excess LDL cholesterol in your digestive tract and removes it from your body. Whole grains also contain magnesium, which dilates blood vessels and can help keep your blood pressure at regular levels.
Add broccoli to your plate. Broccoli is a versatile vegetable—it tastes great grilled, roasted or steamed and is a tasty side dish.
This wonder vegetable is rich in vitamin K, helping to prevent calcium from damaging the arteries. Broccoli also contains sulforaphane, a sulphur-rich compound, which helps the body use protein to prevent plaque build-up in the arteries.
Asparagus is a great food to cleanse your arteries. Steam it, roast it, grill it and even eat it raw in salads.
Filled with fibre and minerals, it helps lower blood pressure and may prevent blood clots that can lead to serious cardiovascular illness. It works within the veins and arteries to alleviate inflammation that may have accumulated over time. It boosts the body’s production of glutathione, an antioxidant that fights inflammation and prevents damaging oxidation that can cause clogged or blocked arteries.
Avocados are a delicious replacement for mayo on a sandwich, or as a salad topping, and of course, in guacamole.
Avocado helps reduce the “bad” cholesterol and increase the “good cholesterol” that helps to clear the arteries. It contains vitamin E, which prevents cholesterol oxidation, oxidised cholesterol builds up on the artery walls. It is also rich in potassium, helping to lower blood pressure.
Nuts make a great snack option, salad and porridge topper. Almonds are high in monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, fibre and protein. The magnesium in almonds can help prevent plaque formation and lower blood pressure.
This summertime favourite is a great natural source of the amino acid, L-citrulline, boosting nitric oxide production in the body. Nitric oxide causes the arteries to relax, decreases inflammation and can help lower blood pressure. Watermelon also helps to modify blood lipids and lowers belly fat accumulation. Less fat in the abdominal area lowers the risk of heart disease.
This dark, leafy green is filled with potassium, folate and fibre, helping to lower blood pressure and prevent artery blockage. One serving per day helps lower homocysteine levels, a risk factor for heart diseases such as atherosclerosis.
Eating it raw retains more of the nutrients, so try it in salads, smoothies and on your omelette.
Antioxidants found in green tea can help prevent the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries. The antioxidants may also act as an anti-blood-clotting agent and improve blood vessel dilation to allow increased blood flow
Alcohol in moderation may have some potential health benefits. For instance, red wine contains resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant, helping to fight cell-destroying molecules in the body. Alcohol also increases the HDL cholesterol, moving the cholesterol to the liver for processing and elimination from the body. However, high intake of alcohol increases blood pressure and also tends to increase triglycerides in the blood, increasing the risk of heart disease.
Allicin, a compound found in fresh garlic, has shown to lower blood cholesterol. Garlic is great with roasted kale or raw in homemade hummus.
Exercise is the key to heart health. Brisk walking can reduce heart disease risk by 30 per cent.
Can you believe how changes in your diet and nutrition can help improve your heart health?. Luckily, these options are delicious and there is endless scope for new recipes and creativity. Take control of your heart and life, today!
Proper nutrition is not a ‘magic bullet’ to decrease the risk of developing heart disease, a healthy diet and sufficient exercise can help tremendously.
In the next article, we are going to talk about blood pressure. Every year, tens of thousands of people of all ages die of preventable hypertension. Did we say preventable? Yes, preventable. In our next post, we’ll explore how. Until then, eat healthy, sleep well and work those sweat glands.
Please ensure you consult your doctor before you make any significant changes to your diet.
This article has been reviewed by Michelle Boehm, a registered nutritional therapist at Live Better Health. Michelle supports busy individuals on their journey to improved health, looking at the root cause of issues. If you would like health advice that is unique to you, contact Michelle