Our food choices are a story of contrasts. Nutritious, healthy foods serve as some of our best medicines. Poor diet choices, however, take a drastic, negative toll on our bodies. In fact, what we eat affects our heart and blood circulation -- either helping to prevent or cause heart attacks and strokes.
For example, consuming foods high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in our arteries. Why is this a problem? Our arteries need to be free and open to carry much-needed oxygen in the blood to the heart. As the plaque hardens and narrows that path, our hearts don't get enough of that oxygen -- leading to chest pains or heart attacks. In the instance of a stroke, the vessels in charge of taking that oxygen-rich blood to our brains become blocked.
As dire as these situations sound, you can use your diet to combat these negatives and supercharge your heart -- keeping those same vessels free and clear. Read on to learn about 10 of these heart-healthy foods.
See some fins? You may have a heart-healthy friend. Eating two or more servings each week of a fatty fish, like salmon, can help lower your risk of coronary heart disease by 30 percent.
This medicinal magic comes from the high level of omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon. Omega-3 fatty acids can lower your triglyceride levels, lower your blood pressure and contribute to a more regular heart rhythm.
Furthermore, salmon has a healthful antioxidant called carotenoid astaxanthin -- along with protein, B-vitamins for converting food to energy, calcium and vitamin D.
If we've convinced you to trade chicken nuggets for some fatty fish, here are some tips for salmon shopping: Look for salmon with a bright orange-to-red color, firmness, moistness and mild aroma. In addition, contamination can sometimes occur on fish farms. Look first for wild salmon. If that's not available, choose farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile or Washington State. Farmed fish from the eastern United States, western Canada and Norway should be your third pick.
Whole grains can certainly make for a whole heart. They're packed with fiber, other nutrients, vitamins and minerals. In fact, not only are whole grains, such as oatmeal, great for your heart, but they also can help keep you regular (digestively speaking) and may prevent some cancers, according to WebMD.
Much of whole grains' heart-disease fighting capability comes from soluble fiber. Soluble fiber binds to bile acid. Your body uses bile acid in fat digestion to make cholesterol.
Since our bodies don't digest fiber, that bile acid gets carried out of our bodies as waste. Without that source of bile acid, our bodies turn more cholesterol into bile acids -- thus leading to less heart-disease-contributing cholesterol in our bodies.
Looking for as much fiber as possible?
When scanning the market for your lineup of whole grains, go for steel-cut oats.
What do lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans and pinto beans have in common? They're legumes, meaning they have an ample supply of omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and soluble fiber.
As you learned in the salmon section of this article, omega-3 fatty acids are super heart-health helpers; however, the soluble fiber in legumes, or beans, really helps this food choice cut down on LDL cholesterol (the bad kind).
One study by the Journal of Nutrition showed that servings as small as half a cup of cooked pinto beans help lower cholesterol.
Beans also have another secret weapon when it comes to heart health -- flavonoids.
These little gems stop platelets in your blood from clumping together and blocking blood flow, which lowers your risk for heart attacks and strokes.
When it comes to our health, our bodies practically go "nutty" over almonds and other nuts, such as walnuts and macadamia nuts. When you crack into a nut, you're also cracking into a food with lots of heart-healthy benefits, due to heart-protecting monounsaturated fat, arginine-rich proteins and photo-chemicals. Furthermore, nuts contain those same omega-3 fatty acids our salmon friends have that help our hearts, as well as fiber.
So just how heart-friendly are nuts? EatingWell advises us to eat nuts two to four times each week to lower our chance of heart disease. However, since nuts are still high in fat and calories, it's best to watch your portions and stick to 10 almonds at a time. That makes for a handy snack you can throw in your bag and have ready to ease a late afternoon hunger attack -- another good health choice, since it will keep you away from the junk food in the vending machine.
The American Heart Association suggests choosing fruits and vegetables that are deep in color throughout. Well, you can't get much deeper in color than the nice dark blue hue of our next heart-healthy food -- blueberries.
That nice blue color actually comes from anthocyanins, which are the antioxidants so prevalent in blueberries. But that's not all -- they may be small, but blueberries are also packed with fiber and vitamin C.
Furthermore, blueberries and other berries, such as blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, have anti-inflammatories that help lower the chance of heart disease and cancer. And, as if those weren't enough reasons to stock up on the blue fruit, EatingWell says that heart-healthy plant compounds in berries, called polyphenols, may up our levels of nitric oxide, which is known to relax blood vessels and, thus, help lower blood pressure.
If you're in search of a true vegetable superhero, you just might have it in spinach. One cup of spinach has just 40 calories, and yet that serving far surpasses your daily needs for vitamins A and K and delivers plenty of manganese, folate and magnesium. Spinach also contains healthy antioxidants.
What's the result of all of these superingredients? This dark, leafy green isn't just helping your heart -- it's amping up your cancer-fighting capabilities and preserving brain function. The cancer-fighting and cholesterol-lowering power of antioxidants, the ability of magnesium to keep blood pressure in check, and folate's stroke-battling qualities are just a few of the reasons why Popeye the Sailor Man may have turned to spinach to give him a hand.
Serve up some whole grain pasta with a tomato sauce and you'll be tapping into two sources of heart fighters. That's because tomatoes, like whole grains, have been linked to helping our hearts.
Tomatoes come with lots of vitamin C, vitamin A and fiber. In addition, they contain lycopene, which has been shown to work with tomatoes' vitamins and minerals to help fight disease in general. Some research indicates that the super combination of nutrients in this food also may keep cardiovascular disease at arm's length.
In the summertime, we may be quick to pluck a tomato and eat it like an apple, which happens to be our next food choice. However, it appears that cooking tomatoes actually pumps up most of its health benefits. Although a cooked tomato has less vitamin C, it has more readily available lycopene and its antioxidant levels remain in place.
When talking up fruits and vegetables, the Mayo Clinic points to their vitamins, minerals and fiber -- all in traditionally low-calorie packages. Such is also the case for apples, and if any population knows this more than others, it's the folks in Washington state. After all, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, six out of 10 of the apples in the United States come from there.
And the good news is that apples have been linked to a very special combination of antioxidant flavonoid compounds. Therefore, in addition to its vitamin C and pectin (a type of soluble fiber), it appears that an apple's flavonoids band together to control inflammation and decrease the buildup of plaque in our arteries.
This all goes to show that even though Snow White had reason to fear apples, they're a sound choice for our grocery carts.
Can a sweet treat also help our heart? According to the Cleveland Clinic, the flavonols (a type of flavonoid) in chocolate may positively affect our vascular health -- not to mention provide a tasty morsel. In fact, the healthier blood vessels resulting from flavonols also help prevent kidney disease, dementia and type 2 diabetes.
However, not all chocolate is created equal. As the cocoa in chocolate becomes more and more processed, as is common with commercial varieties, the amount of flavonols decreases. Therefore, until manufacturers perfect a process to preserve those flavonols, aim for dark chocolate or cocoa powder that hasn't been put through Dutch processing (a treatment step taken to mitigate chocolate's acidity).
So how much chocolate should you treat yourself to? Since there's currently no hard and fast rule on how much chocolate will maximize its health benefits, the Cleveland Clinic says to stick to 1 ounce at a time a few times a week.
Moderate drinking has been linked to a decrease in heart disease for a number of reasons. For one, alcohol may help raise your level of good cholesterol (high density lipoproteins, or HDL) and decrease inflammation. In addition, it can thin your blood, which helps work against clots that cause stroke and heart disease. Furthermore, it can give a nice boost to levels of heart-protecting estrogen, which is especially helpful for postmenopausal women with lower estrogen.
There's a bit of a catch, though -- if you don't already drink, the benefits don't warrant starting. Moderate alcohol consumption can increase your risk for other diseases, such as some cancers. Weigh the pros and cons for your personal situation and speak with your doctor.
Harvard School of Public Health defines moderate consumption as two drinks daily for men and one for women -- with a serving as 5 ounces for wine, 12 for beer and one and a half for hard liquor. And when it comes to choosing your drink of choice, the school says all alcoholic beverages appear to carry the same health benefits.
How are skipping breakfast and atherosclerosis related? Learn about the results of a new study in this HowStuffWorks article.