Heart disease is the most common chronic illness in the United States. It’s also responsible for one in three U.S. deaths, making it the top cause of mortality for American men and women. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to protect your heart and stay healthy.
Heart-healthy living means understanding your heart disease risks and taking steps to mitigate them where you can. Along with daily exercise, weight loss, stress control, cholesterol and blood pressure management, and smoking cessation, wholesome eating patterns can go a long way in supporting optimal cardiovascular health throughout your life.
As a board-certified primary care provider who specializes in preventive medicine, Heather Kennedy, PA-C, and our team at Refine Medical in Oklahoma City, know that when it comes to protecting your heart, an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure — and your dietary choices have the power to keep your heart healthy.
From inflammation control and vascular function to the numbers that define your blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, your eating patterns have the power to influence many aspects of your cardiovascular health — for better or worse.
Just as poor nutrition and heart disease are strongly linked, good nutrition and a healthy heart go hand in hand. Accordingly, a heart-healthy eating plan has two main components:
A heart-healthy diet limits (or eliminates, when possible) foods, drinks, and nutrients that are known have a detrimental effect on cardiovascular health, especially when they’re consumed often. This includes sodium, saturated and trans fats, refined carbohydrates, added sugars (including sweetened beverages), and alcohol.
It’s important to know what you shouldn’t eat when you’re trying to foster good heart health, but it’s empowering to know what you can and should eat.
A heart-healthy diet is one that emphasizes vegetables and fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, lean animal proteins (i.e., chicken), fish (especially fatty fish), plant-based proteins (i.e., tofu), and unsaturated fats (i.e., avocado and olive oil). It may also include low-fat dairy products for extra calcium.
Research shows that adding certain foods to your diet is just as important as cutting back on others — especially when your goal is establishing heart-healthy eating patterns. Some of our favorite heart-healthy foods are:
Known for their low-calorie count, blood-sugar-regulating dietary fiber, and high concentration of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, dark leafy green vegetables, such as collard greens, kale, and spinach, have powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
Leafy green vegetables are a good source of vitamin K and dietary nitrates, which can help improve blood vessel function, reduce arterial stiffness, and normalize blood pressure levels. A recent study by The American Heart Association shows that increasing the intake of dark leafy greens is linked to greater cardiovascular benefits — and a lower risk for heart disease — than any other vegetable or fruit.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are plentiful in fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna, are known to have a protective effect against the development of heart disease, and may also help reduce the risk for cardiovascular problems, such as heart attack, stroke, and arrhythmias.
Over time, eating fatty fish once or twice weekly can promote lower total cholesterol, blood triglycerides, fasting blood sugar, and systolic blood pressure levels. If you don’t like fish, you may be able to get your daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil supplements.
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, dietary fiber, plant sterols, and L-arginine, nuts and seeds pack a lot of heart-healthy nutrients into a tiny package. Research shows that eating a small handful of nuts or seeds most days of the week lowers the kind of systemic inflammation linked to heart disease and diabetes.
Eating walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, and flaxseeds has been shown to improve artery health, lower the risk for blood clots, and help normalize cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure levels. Just be sure to stick with raw nuts and seeds or the dry roasted variety, with no sodium, sugar, or oil added.
High in dietary fiber, vitamin C, anti-inflammatory polyphenols, and antioxidants, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, goji berries, and açaí berries are chock-full of nutrients that play a central role in heart health.
Eating berries can help you mitigate multiple heart disease risk factors. They’ve been shown to improve vascular function, protect against oxidative stress, ease inflammation, reduce heart attack risk, improve blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity, and normalize blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Whereas refined carbohydrates increase heart disease risk, whole grains help lower it. A recent study shows that an extra 1-2 servings of refined carbohydrates can increase your heart disease risk by 10-20%, while an extra 1-2 servings of whole grains can cut your heart disease risk by the same amount.
Eating whole grains rather than refined grains is a simple and effective way to boost your fiber intake and cut your risk for heart disease, stroke, and coronary artery disease. Whole wheat products, brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, rye, and buckwheat are all good options.
Would you like to improve your cardiovascular health? We can help. To learn more, call 405-609-7369 or book an appointment online with Refine Medical today.