Sylvia Meo, R.D.
Eating for a Healthy Heart
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
February is the month we celebrate love, but did you know that February is Heart Month, an opportunity to bring attention to cardiovascular health and how we can reduce our risk of heart disease? Heart disease, which includes both strokes and heart attacks, affects about 1 in 12 (or 2.4 million) Canadian adults aged 20 or older, and is the second leading cause of death in Canada. And did you know that 1 out of 2 Quebecers has a blood cholesterol level that is higher than normal ( ›5.2 mmol/L)?
A growing number of studies are suggesting that what you eat and drink can protect your body from various diseases, and that the right food choices can prevent up to 70% of heart disease! Risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as elevated blood cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and obesity can be controlled and prevented through diet. Furthermore, the foods and drinks that are known to be good for your heart can also benefit your brain, your digestion, and your body in general. Therefore, whether or not you have heart disease, whether you are young or older, transitioning to a heart-healthy diet is beneficial for all of us!
The great news is that you don’t have to give up great tasting food to eat for your heart. A heart-healthy diet consists of a variety of foods from all the food groups. Here are the foods and ingredients that I urge you to include in our diet more often to keep your heart ticking strongly for decades to come!
Foods rich in heart-friendly fats (unsaturated fats)
Not all fats are created equally, some fats are better than others. For long term health, you want to include good or heart-friendly fats into your diet more often. These include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These types of fats come mainly from nuts, seeds, certain vegetables and fatty fish. They help stop clots, improve blood pressure and circulation, lower total cholesterol, LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and triglyceride levels in your blood, and are known to increase HDL blood levels (the “good” cholesterol).
The good sources of monounsaturated fats that I recommend using as much as possible are olive oil, avocados and most nuts.
Polyunsaturated fats are even more important because they are essential fats, in other words they are required for normal body functions. Unfortunately, your body can’t produce these essential fatty acids, they can only be provided through food and supplements. There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Our typical diet tends to contain significantly more omega 6 than omega 3 fatty acids, and elevated omega 6 intakes may promote inflammation, so for a healthier balance I recommend putting a particular focus on increasing your omega 3 intake. Omega 3 fatty acids also play a more significant role for heart health by possibly preventing and even treating strokes and heart disease.
There are actually three different types of omega 3 fats: ALA, DHA and EPA. The preferred sources are DHA and EPA. The best sources of DHA and EPA fats are wild-caught fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies. ALA omega 3 fats are found in mostly plant sources, flax, chia and hemp seeds, as well as walnuts, but your body will need to convert these ALA fats into usable EPA and DHA fats. Although, this is doable to some degree, it isn’t as efficient as getting your EPA and DHA sources directly from food.
at least 2 servings of fatty fish (3-4 ounces each) per week;
4 to 5 servings per week of seeds, nuts or nut butters (a handful or 1/4 cup of nuts or 2 tablespoons of nut butter, chia seeds or flax seeds each);
try using as much as possible olive oil as your main source of fat for your salads, in your marinades, to sauté your vegetables;
add some avocado slices to your salad or mash some up on your bread in place of mayonnaise for your sandwiches;
I also recommend adding an omega-3 supplement to make sure you are getting at least 1000 mg a day of EPA/DHA.
Fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate found in plant foods and an important part of a healthy diet in general. There exist two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Most foods contain both types of fiber, but are usually richer in one than the other. People associate fiber with a healthy digestive system, and although that is true, fiber has also been shown to do a lot more than keep you regular. Fiber plays a role in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, it can lower your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels, it helps control your blood sugar levels and protects you against strokes and diabetes. Foods rich in soluble fiber are better at protecting your heart.
Here is a list of foods with the highest content of soluble fiber:
fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen): apples, pears, oranges and other citrus fruits, figs and dates, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, chicory, swiss chard, sweet potatoes, artichokes, asparagus, avocados, onions;
legumes: split peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans (edamame);
nuts and seeds: most nuts contain soluble fiber, pumpkin and sunflower seeds contain twice as much per serving, but the real stars here are once again flax and chia seeds;
whole grains: the champions being oats, barley and amaranth.
Unfortunately, most of us fall short of meeting our daily fiber intake recommendations (men 38 g/day, women 25 g/day), consuming on average just 15 g of fiber per day, so just be generous with a variety of sources of fiber in your diet daily!
N.B. when buying prepackaged foods, look at the nutritional value table on the package and make sure it says 15% or more for the fiber % Daily Value (%DV).
The foods listed above are plant foods and are not only great to increase your intake in fiber, vitamins and minerals that are recommended for a heart-healthy lifestyle, but are also boosting in phytonutrients or antioxidants. Beta carotene, vitamin C, lycopene, vitamin E, selenium, and flavonoids are just a few antioxidants that have been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. They help prevent or repair cell damage and inflammation, thus reducing damage to your arteries, they may decrease blood pressure and dilate blood vessels, and may increase the good cholesterol (HDL) in your body.
I recommend you eat foods that are sources of antioxidants, rather than take them in the form of supplements, which have not been proven beneficial in this case. Some of the top antioxidant foods are found in the fruits and vegetables food group.
Antioxidants give foods their color. Eating a variety and a rainbow of fruits and vegetables daily is key! Cherries, pomegranate, tomatoes, blueberries, sweet potatoes, whether they are red, blue/purple, green, orange/yellow or white/brown, each color carries its unique disease fighting phytonutrients. Herbs and spices are also extremely high in healing antioxidants, think cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, cilantro, oregano, basil, etc.
Other goods sources of heart-healthy antioxidants include whole grains, nuts and seeds, green tea (matcha ideally), red wine and even coffee. And for those of you who need your regular chocolate fix, several studies have also shown that dark chocolate (60-70% cocoa) may benefit your heart and reduce nonfatal heart attacks and strokes in people at high risk for them.
For more heart healthy tips and tricks click the links below:
Heart Healthy Fats, Because Not All Fats Are Created the Same!