To recognize the Go Red Campaign, this month we offer a series of articles to increase your understanding of heart disease. In this article, we review the foods to eat and supplements to take that support heart health. In the companion article, Living a Heart Healthy Lifestyle, we offer tips on how to modify your lifestyle to support a vital cardiovascular system.
To learn more, read Cardiovascular Disease: Not Just a Man’s Disease. This article provides an overview of heart disease and how it affects women differently than men. The signs and symptoms of a heart attack and angina are reviewed along with a list of factors that influence your risk.
You Are What You Eat
If you want all the benefits of a fit cardiovascular system then paying attention to what you eat is important. A heart healthy diet is one that features a wide range of colorful fruits & vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, beans & legumes, nuts & seeds and polyunsaturated fats.
Below is a list of key nutrients that support heart health along with the foods where you can find them. By consuming these foods on a regular basis and combining with a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Anthocyanins are phytonutrients that belong to a larger plant family called flavonoids. These compounds give many blue, purple and dark red fruits and vegetables their color.
These purple pigments offer significant antioxidant protection, strengthen blood vessels and exert a significant anti-inflammatory effect. By preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and other lipoproteins, anthocyanins may reduce the risk of coronary heart diseases.
Major sources of anthocyanins are blueberries, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, black currants, purple grapes and red wine. Other foods that contain anthocyanins include bilberries, blackberries, purple carrots, pomegranate, acai, purple sweet potatoes, purple cauliflower, purple cabbage, black grapes, beets and blood oranges.
The vitamins B6, B12 and folate help lower homocysteine, an amino acid that is linked to heart disease, blood clots, heart attack and strokes. Niacin, another B-vitamin, when taken as a prescription in high doses, can elevate HDL levels. Niacin can also decrease LDL and triglyceride levels but to a lesser extent.
Vitamin B6 – Meat sources including chicken, beef and pork and fish like cod, salmon, halibut, trout, tuna and snapper are excellent sources; Vegetable sources including potato, spinach, turnip greens, broccoli, bell peppers, asparagus, cauliflower, avocado; Nut & seed source including sunflower seeds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts; Beans & legumes including peanuts, soybeans, lentils, navy beans, garbanzo beans; Whole grains & bran including wheat bran, Brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, brown rice.
Vitamin B12 – Shellfish including clams, oysters & muscles; liver, eggs, turkey, pork, oysters and sardines.
Folate – Beef liver; Vegetables including asparagus, spinach, kale, beet & mustard greens, broccoli, and split peas; Beans & Legumes including black-eyed peas, soy beans, kidney beans, navy beans, garbanzo beans, lentils, peanuts; Nuts including walnuts; Wheat products including Brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, wheat bran, barley
Niacin – Vegetables including leafy greens, spinach, kale, broccoli, asparagus, celery; Tubers such as potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and beets; Meat including beef, poultry, seafood, liver and kidney; Dairy products; Grains, Nuts & Seeds including wheat, rice, bran, Brewer’s yeast, wild rice, brown rice, whole-wheat grains, wheat germ and almonds; Legumes such as peas, black-eyed peas, lentils, lima beans, kidney beans, edamame, chick peas, soybean and soybean products.
Carotenoids (Colored Fruits & Vegetables)
Carotenoids are heart-protective antioxidants found in many colorful fruits and vegetables. You may be familiar with beta-carotene but alpha-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin all belong to this family of fat-soluble compounds. Lycopene, another carotenoid that gives tomatoes their red color, may benefit heart health by boosting the body’s natural antioxidant defenses and protecting against DNA damage.
Beta-carotene is concentrated in sweet & hot red peppers, carrots, certain spices (paprika, chili powder, basil, parsley), sweet potato, kale, dandelion greens, carrots, spinach, pumpkin, and collard greens.
Lutein & Zeaxanthin is concentrated in kale, spinach, dandelion greens, chard, sweet red peppers, arugula, green peas and summer squash.
Lycopene is found in tomatoes and tomato based products (e.g., catsup, tomato sauce), guava, watermelon and pink grapefruit. Cooked tomatoes combined with an unsaturated fat like olive oil enhances the lycopene content. This may be because cooking breaks the cell walls of the tomato, releasing more of the lycopene and the oil helps your body to absorb it. While catsup, pizza and marinara sauce apply, why not try a healthier option like homemade Tomato Soup?
Fiber (Oats, Fruits, Beans, Vegetables)
When it comes to heart health, only soluble fiber is beneficial in lowering cholesterol. In fact, studies have shown that consuming 10 to 25 grams of soluble fiber a day can lower cholesterol by 18 percent. Soluble fiber only lowers LDL or “bad” cholesterol; it minimally, if at all, affects HDL or “good” cholesterol and triglycerides.
Foods that are high in soluble fiber include cereal grains (barley, oatmeal, oatbran), certain fruits (oranges, grapefruits, pears, prunes), beans (lima, kidney, pinto, navy and black), peas (chick peas, black eyed peas), vegetables (Brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli), flax seeds and nuts. Adding these foods to your diet naturally helps to lower cholesterol levels.
Magnesium (Beans, Nuts & Seeds)
Magnesium along with potassium and calcium can help lower blood pressure. Magnesium also regulates heart rhythm by coordinating the activity of the heart muscle and the nerves that initiate a heart beat and can prevent angina by keeping coronary arteries from having spasms.
The best sources of magnesium are tofu, legumes (navy beans, soybeans, lima beans, peanuts, pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, navy beans), seeds, nuts (almonds, cashews, pumpkin and squash seeds, Brazil nuts), whole grains and leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, Swiss chard).
Omega-3s (Salmon, Walnuts, Flax Seeds, Fish Oil, Flax Seed Oil)
The Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are found in certain types of fish and their oil. The Omega-3 polyunsaturated fat called alpha-linolenic fatty acid is found in plant foods like flax seeds and walnuts.
Solid evidence exists for the benefits of taking these Omega-3s for heart health. Their primary benefit is in lowering triglycerides but they also may increase HDL or “good” cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids also reduce blood clots, protect against heart attacks, protect arteries from plaque buildup, are anti-inflammatories, and lower blood pressure.
Not all fish have a high Omega-3 content. Fish that live in cold waters like salmon (Atlantic, chinook and coho), mackerel, anchovy, sardines and tuna (bluefin and albacore) are excellent sources. Good sources include Pacific oysters, fresh water trout and blue mussels.
For healthy individuals, the American Heart Association recommends eating at least 2 servings of fatty fish each week. For those with documented heart disease, the AHA recommends obtaining 2-3 grams of Omega-3s daily.
If you’re concerned about mercury, dioxins and PCBs, the benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks of exposure to these contaminants. Alternatively, supplements like VitaMedica’s Super EPA/DHA Fish Oil is USP tested and verified to exceed international standards for purity (arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, dioxin and PCBs).
Excellent sources of alpha-linolenic acid include flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybeans and soybean oil, pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil, tofu, walnuts, and walnut oil. Augmenting your diet with a flax seed oil supplement can help you to meet your dietary goals. VitaMedica’s Flax Seed Oil is produced using small batch, cold-pressed flax seeds and a patented Omegaflo® process to avoid exposure of delicate oil to damaging light, oxygen and reactive metals.
Omega-9s (Olive Oil)
Omega-9s are a family of monounsaturated fats associated with cardiovascular health. Olive oil, an integral component of the Mediterranean diet, is an Omega-9 oil that is rich in oleic acid.
Olive oil can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing the total and LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels in your blood. Olive oil can also boost your HDL or “good” cholesterol levels. Extra virgin olive oil contains polyphenols that can reduce inflammation.
The greatest benefit from eating olive oil is by replacing a similar amount of saturated fat and by not increasing the total number of calories you eat in a day.
Besides olive oil, other foods that are high in oleic acid include oils from almond, avocado and peanuts.
Phytosterols (Nuts & Seeds)
Phytosterols are plant sterols that chemically resemble cholesterol. Because they are similar to the chemical structure of cholesterol, phytosterols block the absorption of cholesterol in the gut by mimicking cholesterol. If enough plant sterols are consumed, less cholesterol is absorbed and returned to the liver which ultimately lowers cholesterol levels.
All nuts and seeds, including wheat germ have phytosterols. Other foods that contain phytosterols include green leaf lettuce, asparagus, cucumber and cauliflower.
Polyphenols (Chocolate, Cocoa)
Polyphenols are a group of plant compounds that are potent antioxidants that protect blood vessels, lower blood pressure and reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol.
Chocolate is made from cocoa which has a high concentration of polyphenols called flavanols. Numerous studies have demonstrated the cardiovascular benefits of eating small amounts of dark chocolate on a regular basis. Dark chocolate is better than milk chocolate because the cocoa concentration is higher. Given the high-calorie, sugar and saturated content of chocolate, you’ll need to limit your portion size to not offset the health benefits. Also look for dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 65 percent or higher.
Potassium (Beans, Dark Green Vegetables, Dried Fruits, Nuts & Seeds)
Potassium may help lower blood pressure and decrease your risk of having a stroke. You may need extra potassium in your diet if you are taking diuretics or blood pressure medications as these can cause your body to lose potassium.
Excellent sources of potassium includes legumes, vegetables, fruits, finfish/shellfish and nuts & seeds.
Legumes: Soybeans, lima beans, white beans, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts and peanut butter,
Vegetables: radishes, sun dried tomatoes, potato (with skin), tomato products, yam, pinto beans, soybeans, lima beans, spinach, parsley, chard, mushrooms, edamame, kale, mustard spinach, squash, fennel, Brussels sprouts, peas, sweet potato, parsnips, arugula, hot chili peppers, pumpkin, beets, broccoli, lentils, carrots, navy beans, endive, beets, lima beans, cauliflower, radicchio
Fruits: Dried apricots, raisins, dates, figs, avocado, guava, bananas, cantaloupe, melons,
Finfish/Shellfish: cod, mollusks, Atlantic salmon, halibut, yellow fin tuna, anchovy, herring, snapper, trout, bass,
Nuts & Seeds: pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts.
Resveratrol (Red Wine, Grape Juice)
In the category of flavonoid polyphenols is resveratrol, a compound that is found in high concentrations in grape skins. Red wine is loaded with resveratrol because fermenting of the grape skins concentrates this chemical. Grape juice also contains appreciable amounts of resveratrol. Other foods that contain smaller amounts of resveratrol include peanuts, blueberries and cranberries.
Although the French consume considerably more saturated fat than Americans, they have a much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. It is believed that their high consumption of red wine mitigates the effects of their high saturated fat intake, the benefit which is aptly referred to as the “French Paradox”.
Those that drink alcohol in moderation, including red wine, have a lower incidence of heart disease. It is thought that alcohol raises HDL cholesterol, reduces the formation of blood clots and prevents artery damage by LDL cholesterol.
Keep in mind that moderation is defined as one drink a day for women and two drinks for men. A drink is 12-ounces of beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled liquor. Any more than this amount raises your risk of developing high blood pressure and high triglycerides and is associated with other negative health consequences.
A study demonstrated that consuming soy protein rather than animal protein significantly decreased blood levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides without significantly affecting HDL levels.
Soy containing foods include tofu, soy nuts, soy burgers, edamame (boiled soybeans), miso (fermented soybean paste), tempeh (soybean patties), soy cheese, soy yogurt, soy milk, soy protein and soy crisps.
Last updated June 12, 2018
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.