Heart Month: Foods to Improve Your Heart Health
From salad to salmon to dark-chocolate covered almonds, the right food choices can have a big impact on cardiovascular health. Foods from diets such as the Mediterranean diet are rich in antioxidants can reduce blood pressure, raise good cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol, and reduce inflammation. This helps prevent stroke and heart disease.
“You literally are what you eat,” says Sally Seibert, RN, clinical coordinator for RVMC Cardiac Rehab. “The nutrients you put into your body become part of your cells and your cardiovascular system.”
Sally recommends eating fresh, whole foods and avoiding processed options. For heart-healthy guidelines, she suggests following the Mediterranean diet:
Vegetables: Four servings a day (1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw)
“A good start is to eat the colors of the rainbow and have some kind of produce with every single meal,” Sally says. For example, add blueberries to your breakfast cereal, eat an orange with lunch, and load up on leafy greens at dinner.
Sally points out that frozen vegetables can be a healthy, economical option. “Because they’re flash-frozen, they retain nutrients perhaps even better than fresh produce that’s been sitting a while,” she says.
Fruit: Three servings a day (for example, a small apple, small banana, or half a grapefruit)
Fruit is high in nutrients and fiber. Sally recommends eating fresh fruit rather than juice, which contains a higher concentration of sugar than its solid counterparts.
Whole grains: Two servings a day (1 slice of bread, 1 cup of cereal, ½ cup of rice)
Oatmeal, brown rice, and whole grain cereals are a good source of fiber and nutrients. “Watch your labels,” Sally says. Many manufacturers are now marking their packages to indicate products high in whole grains.
Fish: Two to four servings a week
Certain types of fish are high in Omega 3, a polyunsaturated essential oil that can raise your good cholesterol. Omega 3 is also crucial in brain function. “Our body can’t make them. We have to provide them through food,” Sally says. Recommended fish include salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, cold-water fish, and halibut.
Legumes: At least two servings a week (for example, ½ cup beans, lentils or peas)
“Beans are so good for you—low in calories and fat, full of fiber and protein—and they’re a lot less expensive than meat,” Sally says.
Nuts: Two 1-ounce servings a week of tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, or pecans)
Nuts are high in protein and alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, a substance that converts to Omega 3 in the body and can lower total cholesterol and decrease triglycerides. “But eat small portions because they’re also high in fat and calories,” Sally adds.
Other heart-healthy recommendations include replacing butter with olive or canola oil, adding ground flaxseed to yogurt or baked goods (an excellent source of ALA), and drinking green or black tea.
Finally, certain indulgences are not off-limits in the Mediterranean diet. “An ounce a day of chocolate has antioxidant benefits if it is at least 70 percent cacao,” Sally says.
Alcohol can also be good for your heart if you limit to one drink a day (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1 ounce of hard liquor). More than that can have reverse effects. Sally warns, “If you have any kind of problem with alcohol, don’t drink it.”
Finally, Sally advises people to be careful with supplements. “All the nutrition your body needs can be found in your food. Talk to your doctor before taking supplement capsules.”