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Tell Me What To Eat If I Suffer From Heart Disease

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD

There has never been a better time to prevent or reverse heart disease. Discoveries related to reversing heart disease, advances in medication and the surgical options are all much better than even 10 years ago.

Heart Disease And Diet

The typical American diet works against our genetics, leading most of us down a path toward assorted dangerous health issues such as heart disease and stroke. The average diet embraces the tempting trifecta of fat, sugar, and salt—a combination that some experts say encourages overeating and a dulling of our natural ability to compensate for extra calories. Think of some favorite American foods—they all have a combination of fat, sugar, and/or salt (sodium):

  • French fries (fat and salt)
  • Potato chips (fat and salt)
  • Cheeseburgers (fat and salt)
  • Ice cream (fat and sugar)
  • Pizza (fat and salt)
  • Bacon (fat and salt)
  • Snack cakes and cookies (fat and sugar)

Here’s a sobering fact: By the time we reach 20, just about all of us have some amount of atherosclerosis in our arteries. Why is this important? The underlying issue in heart disease and stroke is the accumulation of atherosclerosis plaque (fatty deposits in the inner lining of arteries) triggered in part by inflammation in the body.

Starting A Heart Healthy Diet

How do you get your loved ones pointed in the right direction nutritionally for better heart health?

Step #1. Drink wisely and kick the soda habit.
What you choose to drink each day can help or harm your health and your heart. If you are drinking liquids that contribute calories without nutrients, these calories add up quickly through the day and are more likely to be treated like “extra” calories by your body, leading to weight gain. Recent studies suggest that when we drink our calories in beverage form, they don’t seem to register to our stomach the way food calories do.

Step #2. Eat like a Mediterranean more often.
By learning the Mediterranean diet, you are adopting a way of eating that helps protect your heart. Researchers aren’t certain which mechanisms are at play, but they suspect it could involve a reduction in oxidative stress, anti-inflammatory effects, improvement in how the artery walls function and/or changing blood lipid levels.

The traditional Mediterranean-style of eating emphasizes:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil as the primary source of fat
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes or beans (chickpeas, lentils, fava beans)
  • Fruits and vegetables (about 9 servings a day)
  • Nuts (about a handful a day)
  • Fish (at least twice a week) that isn’t fried, cooked with butter or served with heavy sauces
  • Chicken (not deep fried, but roasted, grilled, or prepared with olive oil)
  • Red wine (in moderation—no more than 5 ounces for women and 10 ounces for men daily, if the doctor approves)
  • Herbs and spices as flavorings (instead of salt)

Step #3. Put your powerful phytochemicals to work.
There are three phytochemical families that stand out as being helpful and protective against cardiovascular disease: polyphenols, plant sterols/stanols and lignans. Here’s what you need to know:

Polyphenols

How may they help?
Even in small amounts, polyphenols appear to help combat inflammatory disease by controlling gene expression. They are thought to help lower blood pressure. They may improve blood lipid levels. They may discourage atherosclerosis and help make blood vessels more open and flexible (improving blood flow). They may help improve blood glucose regulation and may contribute to weight control and weight loss by speeding up the metabolism and possibly encourage the body to burn more fat.

Where do you get them?
Fruits such as berries (raspberries, strawberries, etc.), purple grapes, pomegranate, apples, citrus fruits—particularly the pulp, pears, cherries and apricots.
Vegetables and herbs such as eggplant, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, leeks, broccoli, endive, chives, red cabbage, radishes, rhubarb, radishes and parsley.
Other plant foods such as green tea, cocoa powder and dark chocolate, Earl Grey, Ceylon and Darjeeling black tea
Beans such as lentils and black-eyed peas
Nuts such as walnuts

Plant Sterols

How may they help?
By decreasing total and LDL cholesterol levels, plant sterols help reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease in people with elevated cholesterol levels. Phytosterols inhibit the absorption of dietary cholesterol from the food we eat, and the reabsorption of cholesterol from bile acids (which the body secretes as part of normal digestion).

Where do you get them?
Various food products, such as margarine, have plant sterols added. But you can also find impressive amounts of plant sterols naturally in healthful plant foods—just eating the heart-smart way (plentiful in nuts, beans, vegetables, fruits and whole grains) will get you easily to a desirable amount of phytosterols—about 600 mg per day.

Here is a sampling of foods that naturally contribute plant sterols:

  • Avocado
  • Soybeans
  • Chickpeas
  • Almonds
  • Olive oil

You’ll also find phytosterols in Brussels sprouts, legumes and beans, rye bread, whole wheat, seeds (particularly sunflower and sesame seeds), nuts (almonds, cashews, macadamia, peanuts) and canola oil.

Lignans

How may they help?
Lignans exhibit anti-inflammatory actions in part by blocking the pro-inflammatory actions of platelet activating factor. Lignans also have antioxidant properties and may help block the oxidation of LDL cholesterol particles, encouraging fewer of them to deposit in your arterial walls.

Where do you get them?
There are many lignan-containing plant foods that most of us know and love.
Beans such as kidney beans, soybeans, lentils, navy beans, pinto beans,
Fruits such as pears and plums.
Vegetables such as asparagus, beets, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, leeks, onions, snow peas, squash, sweet potatoes and turnips.
Ground flaxseed: flaxseed is one of the most lignan-rich plant foods on the planet.

Excerpted from Elaine’s book, Tell Me What To Eat If I Suffer From Heart Disease where you’ll find more ideas and recipes to help you incorporate all these heart healthy diet food choices.