10 Heart-Friendly Nutrients
When following the DASH diet, what you add to your diet is just as important as what you limit. Adequate vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals are all important. Phytochemicals are a broad range of compounds found in plants that not only help control blood pressure but may also play all sorts of roles in warding off disease. Following are ten heart-friendly nutrients worth working into your diet:
Calcium is a must for healthy bones, but did you know that your heart needs calcium too? Calcium plays a role in blood clotting, helps maintain a normal heartbeat, and helps stabilize blood pressure. The human body processes calcium from food much more effectively than from a pill. (Plus, some studies have shown that taking calcium supplements may actually be harmful to your heart.) Great sources of calcium include DASH-friendly foods such as dairy, tofu, and dark green, leafy vegetables.
Flavonoids are plant pigments found in fruits and vegetables that act as antioxidants, protecting your body’s cells from free radicals (cells that may lead to disease). Flavonols promote heart health and are found in red foods such as berries, apples, red grapes, and red wine. They’re also found in yellow onions, kale, broccoli, cocoa, tea, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.
Folic acid works alongside the B vitamins to keep all the cells in your body healthy. It’s especially important in the development of the fetal nervous system, which is why supplements are often given during pregnancy. A good portion of the grain products you buy at the grocery store are fortified with folic acid. You’ll also get plenty of this nutrient if you include green veggies, fruits, nuts, and beans in your diet.
If you’re not pregnant and not on certain prescription drugs that can deplete folic acid, then it’s usually best to avoid supplements because there’s some evidence that high doses may raise the risk for cancer and heart disease.
Magnesium works alongside potassium to help the heart and muscles function normally. It’s also important for a healthy nervous system, strong bones, and immune function. Like potassium, low levels can cause irregular heartbeats. You can find magnesium in green leafy veggies, nuts, wheat germ, avocados, and even chocolate.
Omega-3 fatty acids may decrease the risk of abnormal heartbeats (arrhythmias). They may also help reduce triglyceride levels, reduce plaque in the arteries, and lower blood pressure. Fatty fish such as salmon, lake trout, and albacore tuna, as well as shellfish, are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, and soybean oil are also good sources.
Potassium is important in maintaining normal muscle function and supporting electrical activity in the heart. If your potassium levels dip too low, you may experience irregular heartbeats and muscle cramps. Conversely, if your potassium level is normal, you’re less apt to have high blood pressure. Fruits and veggies are the primo sources of potassium, and following the DASH diet makes it easy to get all the potassium you need.
If you’re on a diuretic (water pill) or if you have kidney problems, be sure to get your potassium levels checked regularly. Excessive potassium can be very dangerous, so this is one supplement you should avoid, unless under a doctor’s supervision.
Resveratrol is a polyphenol that may protect against heart disease. It’s been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and may prevent blood clots. It’s found in red and purple grapes, red wine, blueberries, cranberries, peanuts, and pistachios. Exactly how it works remains somewhat of a mystery, but including some of these foods as part of your DASH plan is a good idea.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is an antioxidant available in many foods. Its antioxidant properties have been associated with lowering cardiovascular disease risk. Many fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, but it’s especially abundant in citrus fruits, peppers, potatoes, cantaloupe, strawberries, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. So when you’re meeting your DASH dietary goals, you’ll be going beyond your daily vitamin C goals too!
Vitamin D has long been known for developing strong bones, but more research is exploring the role of vitamin D in all sorts of treatments, from preventing cancer to boosting immunity to preventing heart disease. Although sunlight is still the best source of vitamin D (because your body synthesizes the vitamin when your skin is exposed to sunlight), good dietary sources of vitamin D include fatty fish (think salmon), fortified milk, and fortified orange juice.
Vitamin E protects your cells from environmental toxins. In fact, it’s one of the most important antioxidants in the diet. It also helps keep your blood vessels nice and flexible. If you follow DASH, you’ll get all the vitamin E you need from foods such as nuts, vegetable oils, wheat germ, and whole grains.
Taking vitamin E supplements has been linked to a higher risk for cancer, heart failure, and bleeding. You’re better off steering clear of vitamin E supplements.