According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. It accounts for one in every four deaths in the U.S., or about 610,000 people per year. While it was traditionally thought of as a “man’s disease,” heart disease causes roughly the same number of deaths per year in both men and women. Despite these sobering statistics, there is much we can do to help prevent heart disease in the first place.

Lifestyle

While the focus of this article is food, a healthy lifestyle is just as important for a healthy heart. Smoking, excessive alcohol use, unmanaged stress, depression, sleep deprivation, and being sedentary can all harm the heart. Sitting for long periods each day can put you at increased risk, even if you do a workout on those days. Addressing these areas can greatly improve your heart health as well as related conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and being overweight.

Food

Reduce the Sugar. Added sweeteners such as table sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can lead to overeating and fat gain. Studies have shown that those who eat added sugars, especially in the form of sugary beverages, do not compensate for those extra calories by eating less of other foods. On the other hand, when we eat more fat or carbohydrates, we often will naturally compensate by eating less of the other. Overeating and fat gain contribute to insulin resistance, which in turn can lead to metabolic conditions and cardiovascular disease. Eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages as well as processed foods with added sugars (check the ingredients list) is a great way to reduce overall sugar intake. For drinking, retrain your brain to enjoy pure water. Sparkling water flavored with real fruit, water mixed with juice, herbal tea, coffee, and regular tea can all fit into a heart-healthy drinking plan. (More on sugar in future articles.)

Ditch the Industrial Seed Oils. Industrial seed oils such as corn, soybean, cottonseed, and safflower oil are highly processed, high in Linoleic Acid, an omega-6 fat, and are oxidized easily. Our need for LA is very small; we get about 100 times the amount that we need, mostly from the oils found in processed foods such as cookies, cakes, doughnuts, crackers, chips, salad dressings, as well as fast food and most restaurant food. LA is heat sensitive. During cooking or food processing, it can become oxidized. This can lead to inflammation, which is the root cause of many diseases, including heart disease. It is particularly harmful when the diet is absent in important omega-3 fats, which are discussed below.

Fish. Coldwater, fatty fish are a great addition to a heart-healthy diet. Salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, bass, and shellfish (oysters and mussels in particular) are great sources of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in our diet should be 1:1 to 2:1. Even modest amounts of EPA and DHA can significantly reduce death from cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends at least two servings a week of fatty fish (about 3.5 ounces per serving). Many people can accommodate more than this into their eating plan. Those with greater heart-disease risk or who eat a lot of omega-6 fats benefit from eating fish more frequently.

Fat. Eat more monounsaturated fats. Olives and extra-virgin olive oil, avocadoes and avocado oil, and nuts such as macadamia and almonds are all high in this heart-healthy fat. We now know that low-fat diets are not the answer to heart disease; it is the type of fat and not so much the quantity that counts. Monounsaturated fats have been shown to decrease oxidation and inflammation, decrease blood pressure and increase “good” HDL cholesterol. Observational studies also show a link between nut eaters and lower BMI and lower waist circumference. Be aware, however, that nuts are calorie-dense; they are easy to overeat.

Polyphenols. Consuming polyphenols has a strong cardio-protective effect. They are found in a wide range of plant foods such as berries, grapes, eggplant, red potatoes, apples, pears, green tea, hibiscus tea, red wine, citrus, dark chocolate, coffee, and turmeric. Polyphenols inhibit LDL oxidation, which plays a role in atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. They also act as antioxidants, inhibit inflammation, and increase HDL “good” cholesterol.

Soluble Fiber. Soluble fiber is strongly linked with heart health. It is present in many fruits such as apples, vegetables (especially the starchy ones), beans, as well as some grains such as oats and flaxseeds. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in the intestines, which is then excreted, thereby lowering blood cholesterol. This type of fiber is also called fermentable fiber because friendly gut bacteria feed on it. Byproducts of this fermentation process include gases as well as the healthy short-chain fatty acids, which also lower cholesterol. Lastly, it helps us feel full and increases insulin sensitivity.

As you can see, a heart-healthy diet is certainly not one of deprivation. While cardiovascular disease is real and statistics are sobering, eating for a healthy heart is anything but. Eating a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables, as well as satiating, healthy fats, makes for a delicious start to being kind to your heart.

Strawberries and Dark Chocolate Drizzle (Recipe by Steven Masley, MD) Serves: 2
2 oz. dark chocolate
1 Tbsp. organic, grass-fed butter
2 cups fruit (strawberries are perfect, but you can also try orange, or pitted cherries), cut into bite-size pieces
2 Tbsp. chopped nuts of your choice
In a double boiler, melt chocolate, then add butter and stir together. Alternatively, melt slowly together in a glass bowl in the microwave. Spread fruit pieces over a plate and drizzle with chocolate. Sprinkle with chopped nuts. Serve immediately or chill and save for later.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.