Imagine a world where bacon double cheeseburgers, Krispy Kreme donuts and nachos are great for your heart, and fried chicken, French fries and hot fudge sundaes make you shed pounds like a bride before her wedding day. You could indulge in whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, your health would only improve and the weight would only disappear. Sounds like paradise, doesn't it? Sadly, the foods many of us often crave aren't the things we should be eating. In the real world, what we should be eating is spinach, Brussels sprouts and cantaloupe -- not as compelling for many of us.
Heart disease is a worldwide problem and the leading cause of death among Americans. The good news is that over the years, nutrition experts have come a long way in determining what's good for our hearts. Things like alcohol and fat aren't the evil things doctors once thought they were. The trick is to have the right kinds of fats and to drink alcohol in moderation. There isn't any one magic food that can guarantee a healthy heart, but adding certain foods to your diet on a regular basis can go a long way to helping you to avoid the emergency room or operating table.
We'll get to some specific foods in our top five list, but what most people should know is that a whole-foods approach to eating is the healthiest way to go. By whole-foods, we don't mean the trendy grocery store that puts a dent in your bank account. We're talking food in its most natural state. For example, raw veggies are best, followed by lightly steamed or sautéed. Fresh potatoes with the skin on are loaded with vitamins and nutrients, but potato chips will clog your arteries. Whole grains like oatmeal are great for you, but sugary, processed instant oatmeal packets lack many of the healthful properties of their unprocessed cousin.
Avoid packaged and processed foods as much as possible and you've got a head start on our list. That said, we'll get to the top five heart healthy foods. Who's hungry?
A whole grain contains the entire kernel; refined grains have been milled -- a process that removes the bran and germ. Ditching these two ingredients may help the shelf life, but it removes B vitamins, fiber and iron. Some refined grains are enriched, meaning some of the vitamin B and iron is added back into it, but you still miss out on the fiber. So what's the big deal about eating the entire kernel and loading up on fiber? You can cut your risk of heart disease by about 15 percent, that's what. This happens because fiber acts like a Brillo pad on the inside of your artery walls, cleaning out the bad cholesterol before it has a chance to stick around. Whole grains are also packed with vitamin E and as most people know, the fiber will aid your digestion -- an added bonus. If you want to make the switch from refined to whole grains altogether, you can reduce your risk of heart trouble by up to 30 percent.
So what are whole grains? Oatmeal, for one. And yes, we mean the plain old boring oatmeal, not the yummy sweet packets we discussed on the previous page. You can sweeten your oatmeal with a little cinnamon or scoop a little fresh fruit preserves in while cooking. You can even cook it with a blend of apple juice and water. If oatmeal isn't your thing, get a high fiber, whole grain cereal. Just one bowl of Raisin Bran a day can lower your cholesterol level by 16 to 28 points. Look for breads that list whole wheat as the leading ingredient and try brown rice instead of white.
"Beans, beans, good for your heart, the more you eat" -- well, you know the rest. In this case, we're talking about the black beans in your Mexican food, the kidney beans in your veggie chili and other legumes like soybeans and lentils. If you're from the American South, you may want to chow down on some lima beans or black eyed peas. For an Asian flare, steam some edamame with a little bit of light soy sauce. Some whole wheat pita bread with hummus makes a nice snack and incorporates your whole grain and your legume -- hummus is made from chickpeas. Even Hannibal Lecter showed his heart-healthy side by feasting on fava beans with a nice Chianti (red wine is good for you too, but we'll get to that later). Try to avoid canned beans. It may take longer to soak and cook the fresh ones, but they taste better, they aren't packed with sodium and preservatives, and they're cheaper to boot.
So now that your mouth is watering, what's so great about legumes? They're chock full of protein and are virtually fat-free, for one. They also don't contain any cholesterol and are loaded with fiber, iron, calcium and potassium. Beans are so good for you that the FDA approved the following message in 2005 for the American Dry Bean Board to place on its packaging: "Diets including beans may reduce your risk of heart disease and certain cancers."
That should be enough to make anyone a regular bean counter.
Yes, you read that right. Drinking alcohol may actually help your heart -- as long as it's consumed in moderation. You can't go out and pound a case of beer before the football game with your tailgating buddies and claim you're doing your heart a favor. Doing keg stands and knocking back shots of Jagermeister won't land you on the cover of Heart-Healthy Living magazine. What's the secret here? For one, alcohol makes your blood less likely to clot. Clotting is simply a blob of thickened blood. It's good when stopping a bleeding wound, not so much inside your arteries. Alcohol also helps to boost your good cholesterol level which, in turn, knocks down something called C-reactive protein. This stuff is a sign that your arteries may be inflamed, which can lead to heart disease.
The Mayo Clinic says that consuming one or two drinks per day could reduce your risk of heart disease, but they caution against the dangers of over-imbibing. For men, the magic number is two drinks. Sorry ladies, but you should only have one of the following:
- 12 ounce beer
- 5 ounce glass of wine
- 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor
If you really want to do your body a favor, try to stick with red wine. In addition to the benefits to your heart, it also raises your good cholesterol and lowers your bad cholesterol. If you already drink alcohol, do so in moderation so it can be good for your heart. If you don't then you shouldn't start now -- alcohol is also full of empty calories and has been linked to cancer.
This one is easy. It takes no preparation time and no imagination to consume them. Nuts are a great source of healthful fats and proteins. Healthful fats are unsaturated and there are two kinds -- monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The mono variety raises your good cholesterol levels. What's really cool is that your bad cholesterol is no match for your good cholesterol. So when you eat nuts and other monounsaturated fats, your good cholesterol acts like a bouncer and escorts your bad cholesterol to your liver, where it's filtered from your body like a bad drunk.
Nuts are also packed with flavonoids, an antioxidant that also raises the levels of your good cholesterol. What kinds of nuts should you eat? Any kind really, as long as they aren't coated with sugar and salt. So no honey-roasted or heavily salted peanuts, and leave the candied walnuts alone. Almonds and walnuts top the list of heart healthy nuts -- they're bursting with omega-3s, vitamin E, fiber, folate and magnesium. Most doctors recommend a handful of nuts every day. They can help you pack on the pounds though, so don't sit down in front of the TV and go through an entire can. Like always, moderation is the key.
Heart Healthy Food No. 1: Fish
The name of the game here is omega-3 fatty acids. It sounds like something from the future, but it's really just a fancy way of saying that it's "good fat." Omega-3s are good for the body in many ways, but it's the heart that really reaps the benefits. They permeate the arteries and make them more flexible. This helps to reduce your blood pressure and it prevents inflammation. Omega-3s also help to regulate the electrical impulses that keep your heart beating at a consistent rate. Think of them as a natural pace-maker. If that's not enough, omega-3s help to reduce the amount of plaque that builds up inside the walls of your arteries. Plaque comes from bad cholesterol hanging on to your arteries like drywall spackle. The omega-3s come along and make the cholesterol lighter, which makes it more difficult to stick to the inside of your blood vessels.
Are you convinced that omega-3s are a heart "superfood?" Now here's the best part. You can find it in spades in something that many people love to eat -- seafood. Salmon leads the charge here, with loads of omega-3. It's also packed with protein. If you don't feel like swimming upstream, then you can get omega-3s from pollock, tuna, herring, mackerel and swordfish. Both the FDA and the American Heart Association recommend eating fresh fish at least twice a week, so break out the rod and reel and get to work.
These are in the top five, but read on for a list of other heart healthy foods you should include in your diet.
Heart Healthy Food: Bonus List
We couldn't just stop at five, so here's a list of 10 more heart healthy foods that you should make a part of your weekly diet plan.
- Tofu -- Add this to your meal instead of chicken to give you some niacin, folate, magnesium, calcium and potassium. Slice it thin, marinate it and grill it for maximum flavor.
- Flaxseed -- This isn't something you'll want to eat by itself, but it goes great in muffins, cereal, cookies and on top of a salad. More omega-3s here, along with loads of fiber.
- Soy Milk -- Keep this in your fridge to add to your morning coffee or cereal. You'll get falvonoids, B-complex vitamins, folate, calcium, potassium, magnesium and niacin.
- Blueberries -- These go great in cereal, pancakes, smoothies and all by themselves. They're packed with beta-carotene, antioxidants, folate, vitamin C, calcium, fiber, potassium and magnesium.
- Carrots -- Bugs Bunny was on the money here. Carrots contain fiber and Alpha-carotene, a carotenoid that helps enhance your immune system.
- Spinach -- Popeye was right about this one. This leafy green in your salad will give you folate, B-complex vitamins, carotenoids, calcium, magnesium, fiber and potassium.
- Broccoli -- Best if eaten raw or lightly steamed, this green veggie gives you Vitamins C and E, calcium, folate, fiber and beta-carotene.
- Peppers -- Easy to add to most any meal or casserole, peppers are stuffed with beta-carotene, carotenoids, folate, potassium, fiber and B-complex vitamins.
- Sweet Potato -- Nothing beats mashed sweet potatoes. Not only are they delicious, but they're a great source of beta-carotene, fiber and Vitamins A, C and E.
- Asparagus - You may have to hold your nose when you pee later, but eat this green veggie spear to add beta-carotene, carotenoids, fiber, folate and B-complex vitamins.
How are skipping breakfast and atherosclerosis related? Learn about the results of a new study in this HowStuffWorks article.
More Great Links
- "Beans and other legumes: Types and tasty tips." mayoclinic.com. 2008. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/legumes/NU00260
- "Beans, beans, good for your heart, says FDA." foodprocessing.com. Feb. 2, 2005. http://www.foodprocessing.com/industrynews/2005/67.html
- "Blood Clots." University of Florida Shands Cancer Center. 2008.http://www.ufscc.ufl.edu/patient/content.aspx?section=ufscc&id=23135
- "Eating for a Healthy Heart." fda.gov. 2008.http://www.fda.gov/opacom/lowlit/hlyheart.html
- "Gordon, Sandra."Heart-healthy foods keep your ticker in top shape." CNN. July 23, 2007.http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/diet.fitness/07/16/cl.heart.healthy.foods/index.html
- "Heart-healthy diet: 7 steps to prevent heart disease." mayoclinic.com. 2008.http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heart-healthy-diet/NU00196
- "Heart-healthy eating to help prevent cardiovascular disease." Mayo Clinic. 2008. http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/library/NU/00196.html
- "Inside the Pyramid." usda.gov. 2008.http://www.mypyramid.gov/pyramid/grains.html
- "Omega-3 fatty acids." umm.edu. 2008.http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-3-000316.htm
- "The Heart Healthy Food Groups." Reader's Digest. 2008.http://allrecipes.com/HowTo/The-Heart-Healthy-Food-Groups/Detail.aspx
- Lerche Davis, Jeanie. "Top Heart-Healthy Foods: Best Foods for Cardiovascular Health." Medicine.net. 2008.http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=56073
- Tsang, Gloria. "Red Wine - Heart Health benefits?" December 2005.http://www.healthcastle.com/redwine-heart.shtml
- Zelman, Kathleen M. "5 Heart-Healthy Foods." webmd.com. 2008. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/5-heart-healthy-foods