10 Great Heart-Healthy Foods - dummies

By James M. Rippe

A hearty meal often is the way to reach your heart, isn’t it? You can affirm the pleasures of the table (no food cops!) and, at the same time, adopt a balanced, moderate approach to nutrition that enhances your heart health. Use these ten great heart-healthy foods to fine-tune your nutritional plan for improved cardiac health:

  • Olive oil: Olive oil and other monounsaturated fats have enhanced the tasty food and heart health of Mediterranean people for centuries. Monounsaturated fats offer the dual advantage of raising HDL (good cholesterol) without raising total cholesterol.

    Of note, the American Diabetes Association also recognizes the value of monounsaturated fat and recommends that people with diabetes increase their consumption of it. Besides olive oil, other sources of monounsaturated fats include olives, fish, sesame seeds, avocados, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, and some other oils (peanut, walnut, canola, and sesame). The drawback? Like all oil, olive oil has 120 calories per tablespoon. So don’t go wild.

  • Fish: Studies show substituting fish for red meat significantly lowers the amount of saturated fat in your diet and has a positive effect on lowering cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. This benefit is thought to be a result of the omega -3 fatty acids in fish. Omega-3 fatty acids also lower triglycerides and may make blood platelets less sticky and thereby less likely to clot, which reduces the risk of unstable angina or an acute heart attack.

    Some fish, such as salmon, tuna, herring, and blue fish, are high in omega-3 oils. But don’t turn fish into a cardiac nightmare by frying it. Fish oil capsules, by the way, don’t seem to provide the same benefit.

  • Soy foods: Soy protein can help lower LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and raise HDL (the good cholesterol). Soy also contains antioxidants called isoflavones, which may help prevent heart disease in other ways. Although it differs from animal protein, soy protein offers a much more complete set of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) than most vegetables and so can be substituted for fat-rich meats.

    Using soy protein can be particularly important for vegans (vegetarians who eat no animal products — not even milk and eggs) for reasons beyond heart health.

  • Soluble fiber: Scientific evidence of soluble fiber’s cholesterol-lowering benefit is so strong that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now allows food manufacturers whose products are high in soluble fiber to state that “the consumption of soluble fiber as part of an overall low-fat diet further reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.” Where can you find it?

    Whole oat cereals such as oatmeal or Cheerios and its clones are good. Other sources of soluble fiber include dry beans and peas, barley, whole-grain oats, citrus fruits, apples, and corn. Psyllium, another soluble fiber, significantly lowers cholesterol levels.

  • Whole grains: In addition to soluble fiber, whole grains contain the other major type of fiber, insoluble fiber (which is very important for bulking of stools and decreasing the risk of colon cancer), as well as a variety of phytochemicals. By eating more whole grains, you can cut your risk of heart disease significantly, maybe as much as one-third or one-half. But you must make sure you’re eating whole grains, not refined grains, which are missing valuable components, such as the husks.

    So what are some examples of whole-grain foods? Cereals such as oatmeal, shredded wheat, wheat germ, and bran are excellent sources of whole grains. Look for cereals that have 3 to 6 grams of fiber per serving. Whole-grain breads with at least 2 grams of fiber per serving can be another good source.

  • Fruits and vegetables: Eating five servings of fruits and vegetables per day (or more) can help lower your risk of coronary artery disease, lower your blood pressure, and reduce your risk of colon cancer. They’re a great source of fiber. Eating more fruits and vegetables is a great way to reduce the amount of fat in your diet.

    To encourage fruit and veggie consumption, keep at least three different kinds of fresh fruit available and handy in the fridge or in a bowl on the kitchen counter or table. Focus on what’s in season.

  • Plant sterol esters: Plant sterol esters, or phytosterols, help build plant cell walls, and they occur in all plant foods. Vegetable oils contain the highest amounts of them. Medical science has known for decades that plant sterols can lower levels of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) — another plus for veggies! Research shows that consuming about 2 grams of plant sterol esters per day, typically in the form of plant sterol-ester-enhanced margarines or juice, can lower LDL cholesterol from as much as 9 percent to 20 percent.

  • Folate: Folate, which is also called folic acid, helps lower the blood levels of homocysteine, which at high levels has been associated with increased risk of heart attacks. Green, leafy vegetables are a good source of folate, and so are dried beans, peas, and orange juice. Fully fortified whole-grain cereals and a multivitamin supplement are other sources.

    Think foliage to help you remember what foods are rich in folate. (They have the same root word.)

  • Tea: Tea, regardless of whether it contains caffeine, appears to be beneficial to the heart. Black tea is a source of flavinoids, which are antioxidants thought to retard the development of atherosclerosis. In one study of 700 men and women in Boston who drank one or more cups of tea per day, the risk of suffering a heart attack was less than half of what it was for people who did not follow this practice.

  • Alcohol: A number of studies show that moderate alcohol consumption lowers the risk of heart disease. This benefit of alcohol appears to come from alcohol’s ability to increase HDL cholesterol (the good form) and its ability to decrease the likelihood of abnormal clotting in the blood.

    Of all the forms of alcohol, red wine appears particularly beneficial because anticlotting substances and chemicals found in the skins of grapes are present longer during the wine-making process for red wine than they are in the making of white wine. These substances also are present in purple grape juice, although you need to drink about twice as much grape juice as wine to get the cardiac benefit.

    Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as one drink for a woman and two drinks for a man. A drink consists of a 5-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce beer, or a 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits. In the previous sentence, the key word is or. Substitute the word and for the word or, and you’d reach heavy alcohol consumption, which increases your risk of heart disease, hypertension, and motor vehicle accidents.