As we get older, the health issues we saw our parents experience come back to haunt us. I can remember my father sorting out his medications for the various health issues he had developed in his golden years. One of these was heart disease, specifically angina. My mother, on the other hand, suffered a stroke a few years back. It’s safe to say that, in our family, hearts are not the sturdiest organ as we age. Knowing this made me look at my food choices to hopefully protect me from the same fate as I get older.
The term heart disease refers to several types of conditions. The most common is coronary artery disease (CAD), which affects blood flow to the heart (poor blood flow can lead to a heart attack). Angina, (chest pain or discomfort when your heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood) is another. Arrhythmias, irregular heartbeats that can lead to stroke, are yet another. Heart valve disease (one or more valves do not work correctly) and pericardial disease (inflammation of the thin tissue sac surrounding the heart) are also considered heart diseases. Cardiomyopathy (the heart muscle loses its ability to pump blood well), congenital heart disease (usually a defect at birth that affects how the heart works), and heart failure are other heart conditions. Regardless of the issue, the heart is a fragile organ that requires care.
What’s the Big Deal?
Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada, and about 1 in 12 (or 2.4 million) Canadians aged 20 and over live with a diagnosed heart disease. According to government statistics, twelve Canadians have died from some form of heart disease each hour. As the population ages, the statistics show that more and more people will develop and live with cardiovascular disease. The cost to Canada is astounding – more than 22.2 billion dollars per year. On average, women experience heart disease at an older age than men, usually in their 70’s. It is, however, entirely possible that you can experience heart issues earlier than that. What you do today plays an integral role in the health you have later in life.
What Can I Do?
There are a few things that health professionals agree on to help keep your heart in tip-top shape. First, avoid smoking and limit your alcohol intake. Statistics have shown that both substances have adverse effects on your body. Next, stay physically active – whether that is simply a walk every day or an hour at the gym, every little bit of exercise helps. Finally, you are what you eat. Food plays a bigger role than you think as your heart matures.
Eating healthy does not have to be a daunting task. For someone who loves to cook (and eat), it just takes a bit of work to include foods that are good for you in your diet. Here are twelve foods to add to your food menu that will help make your heart strong and healthy:
Dark Leafy Green Vegetables
Dark leafy green vegetables are an excellent source of Vitamin K, which helps protect your arteries and promote proper blood clotting. Studies have shown that increasing your intake can lower your risk of heart disease by 16 percent. Look for spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collards, or mustard greens and add them to your salads, risotto, or spanakopita.
Everyone loves to eat bread, but white bread is not that healthy. Choosing whole wheat, wherever possible, can lower your risk of heart disease by up to 22 percent. Make sure that you read the labels carefully. Words like multigrain or wheat flour are not whole-grain products. Other choices can include brown rice, oats, rye, barley, buckwheat, and quinoa.
Nature’s superfoods are back at it again! Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are full of vital nutrients that play an integral role in heart health. Eating them each day helps control blood pressure and clotting. As a bonus, they are a sweet, natural, and delicious treat! If they are not in season, don’t fret. Add some flash-frozen berries to your smoothies instead.
Avocados are fortunately available year-round. They are an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, which help reduce cholesterol (high cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease). More than that, they are rich in potassium, a nutrient that is essential to a healthy heart. Eating just one teaspoon a day can lessen your risk by 15 percent. Avocados are great in guacamole, salads, or sandwiches.
Nuts and Seeds
I’ve already talked about how good nuts are for you (read my past blog: Nuts About (Winter) Nuts). What I didn’t mention is that they are superheroes that fight the LDL cholesterol villains. Walnuts, for example, can reduce bad cholesterols by up to 16 percent and help lower diastolic blood pressure. Pistachios can reduce blood vessel tightening, heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Nuts and seeds, however, should be eaten in moderation as they are high in calories.
Beans and Legumes
Beans resist digestion and contain fibers called oligosaccharides. The bad news is that these fibers cause gas. The good news is that they cause gas. Say what?? These fibers don’t get digested in the upper part of the gut, but rather make their way to the colon where the beneficial bacteria ferments and develops. Bacteria will help enhance immunity, improve the overall gut function, and prevent diseases in other organs in the body (hello, heart!).
Chocolate is good for you?! Sign me up! Well, not really. It’s the cocoa that is the real heart-healthy food. Cocoa with a content of at least 70% can help lower the risk of coronary heart disease by up to 57 percent. So go ahead and make some hot chocolate or eat some dark chocolate, but keep an eye out for the sugar content. You don’t want to negate its health-promoting properties with calories.
Greeks have been endorsing the benefits of olive oil for generations. A recent study compared 300 people who ate a Mediterranean diet that included olive oil against those who did not. Those following a Mediterranean diet had better cholesterol levels and more efficient removal of the bad LDL cholesterols (sending to the liver as waste). Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats that can help reduce both bad cholesterol and blood pressure. In addition, the triglycerides found in olive oil increase the good cholesterols. Olive oil, much like other fats, is high in calories. It should be used as a replacement for other oils but in moderation. Use it in a traditional Greek Horiatiki Salad.
Beets are full of nitric oxide, which helps open blood vessels and lower blood pressure. Studies have shown that drinking just over 2 cups of beet juice can lower systolic blood pressure within six hours! Beets and their juice are one of the only natural sources of betalain, a powerful antioxidant with high anti-inflammatory qualities. Researchers are looking closely at beets to treat diseases such as arthritis, cancer, and heart failure. The only bad news with beets is that they are higher in sugar content.
Dairy products contain calcium, potassium, and magnesium – minerals that help control blood pressure. The best choice – yogurt! In a Boston University study, researchers followed the eating habits of 75,000 people for almost 30 years. Those that ate yogurt five times a week lessened their risk of high blood pressure by 20 percent. Milk and cheese were also a good alternative, but not as much as yogurt.
Salt is not your friend. Consuming too much can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. It can also cause loss of calcium from your bones. Most of us eat three times the recommended amount – 80% of which is in the processed foods we eat. Read the labels on the processed foods you buy, and do not add additional salt after the meal is cooked.
Keep it Simple
Watching out for your heart from an early age can pay you back in dividends. Your heart is the engine that keeps your body going. Without it, you won’t get anywhere. Both Canada’s Food Guide and the Heart and Stroke Association have some simple steps you can follow for a healthy heart:
- Aim for 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. They are full of beneficial nutrients. Not sure if you are eating enough? Fill half your plate with vegetables or fruits, and you are good to go.
- Eat plant-based foods more often than processed foods. Nutrients are frequently removed from processed foods and replaced with sugars and salts your body does not need.
- Eat a balanced diet that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, protein foods, and plenty of water. Water helps hydration without the calories, and proteins are vital to your brain and heart and help build muscles. Vegetables, fruits, and whole grains all help lower the risks associated with heart disease.
- Keep your sodium intake at 15% or lower each day. Eating foods with too much salt can increase the amount of blood in the arteries and ultimately raise your blood pressure. Increased blood pressure can lead to a host of other heart issues.
- Lessen your sugar intake. Sugars can occur naturally in the foods you eat or as additives to improve flavor, color, texture, or shelf-life. For processed foods, read the labels and eat sugar-free foods wherever possible. Look out for chemicals that are sugars in disguise (read about it in What a Sweet World It Is). Fruits and vegetables that naturally contain sugar are a better choice. Be careful, however, as some have more sugar than others (read about your best options here). No more than 10% of your total daily caloric intake should be sugar (maximum 12 teaspoons)
- Control the number of fats. Your body only needs a small amount to help absorb vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. Avoid foods that are high in saturated fats such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy, butter, hot dogs, burgers, deli meats, French fries, snacks, and donuts. Use more heart-healthy fats like olive oil.
- Finally, prepare the meals yourself. Cooking can be an adventure to share with your entire family. It is also a way to ensure you are eating the best that you can every day.
Ta Dum, Thump-Thump, Ba Boom
You may describe your heart sounds in written words in many different ways. No matter how it sounds to you, your heart should beat in a healthy, happy way. Whether you are 40, 50, or more, it is never too early to start caring for your body. Every little thing you do or eat today will have a life-long lasting effect. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy your food – I know I do. What it means is that when you eat, you make the best choices. Not only can you create some mouth-watering dishes to satisfy your palette with a vast selection of heart-healthy foods, but more importantly, you are taking the utmost care of the engine inside you.