If you aren’t living with the effects of heart disease today, then you may not feel the urgency of eating a heart-healthy diet. But you should know that the benefits of adopting heart-healthy habits go well beyond your ticker.
Eating for heart health also benefits blood vessel health, brain health and virtually every other part of the body.
You name it, heart-healthy diet can help it.
Got your attention?
Here are six tips for a healthy heart.
1. Pack your plate with produce
When it comes to cardioprotection, the more produce you eat, the better. For one, eating vegetables and fruit is the best way to bump-up your potassium intake, a crucial electrolyte for heart function with a well-known blood pressure-lowering effect. Although most of the high blood pressure blame is placed on sodium, it’s worth a reframe: our current potassium intake is only one third of what was consumed by our ancestors. The fact is, it is the combination of a drop in potassium intake along with the increase in sodium in the diet, that burdens the heart with a rise in blood pressure. This means that if you truly want to take charge of your heart health, purchasing low-sodium foods won’t cut it. To flip the ratio in your favour, you must also pack your plate with potassium-rich produce.
Another explanation for the cardioprotective effects of veggies and fruit lies in their high concentration of phytonutrients: plant compounds with strong antioxidant properties. These antioxidants prevent the oxidation of “bad” LDL cholesterol. Why is this important? Because we’ve come to understand that the underlying cause of heart disease isn’t simply the clogging of arteries with cholesterol. The real danger occurs from LDL cholesterol that has been oxidized, creating a “sticky” particle that can easily build-up in artery walls. This is where antioxidants come in: they protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, thereby preventing the hardening and thickening arteries.
Aim to fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables at each meal and build your snacks by combining produce (veggies or fruit) with a source of protein (almonds, peanut butter, seeds, yogurt). Here are some extra tips on how to get more veggies in your diet.
2. Eat chocolate
Chocolate lovers or I should say, cocoa bean lovers, rejoice. Because when it comes to chocolate’s heart-healthy benefits, the bean is where it’s at. Cocoa beans contain high amounts of flavanols, compounds that are also found in other plant foods like berries, tea and red wine. Among the health effects of these cocoa flavanols is improved endothelial function (aka: the health of the inner lining of our blood vessels) making for improved blood flow. In fact, most cardiovascular risk factors (hypertension, hardening of arteries, high cholesterol) are associated with a loss of endiothelial function or blood vessel elasticity, which is why flavanol-rich cocoa has shown to be quite the heart-healthy companion. But to reap these benefits, you need to stay low on the processing chain since every step from harvesting the cocoa bean to the processing of the chocolate bar greatly reduces cocoa flavanols, with losses as high as 90%. Here are some great options to include daily, a healthy dose being about one ounce per day:
Cocoa nibs: Once the cocoa bean is fermented, dried, roasted then cracked you wind up with cocoa nibs. No sugar has been added, so the taste is quite bitter but the crunchy texture is great in sweet and savoury dishes. They’re a great addition to a smoothie bowl.
Raw cacao powder: The key here is to look for raw cacao, not a dutch processed cocoa (the kind typically found in the baking aisle) since this process dramatically reducses cocoa-flavanol content.
Bar: Look for a higher percentage, ideally 80% or higher, with cocoa solids listed before sugar on the ingredient list.
3. Raise your carb standards
It’s becoming quite clear that diets high in low-quality, refined carbohydrates are the most damaging to heart health. In this recent JAMA study, a significant relationship was found between added sugar consumption and cardiovascular disease mortality. Refined carbohydrates increase triglycerides, increase LDL levels, decrease HDL levels and increase inflammatory markers, all major risk factors for heart disease. So where should you start to raise your carb standards? A few stepping stones:
Start by identifying and limiting added sugars in your diet. Women should keep added sugars to 6 teaspoons or less daily and men to less than 9 teaspoons daily. As a reference, one can of soda contains 8 teaspoons of added sugars. Next, move away from processed carbohydrate products and towards whole food sources. For example:
- Moving away from fruit juices and towards whole fruit.
- Moving away from cereal made from oats and towards whole oats.
- Relying less on grain-based products like breads, cereals, crackers and bars, and more on the intact grains themselves, like quinoa, brown rice, farro or steel-cut oats.
- Switching things up with starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, butternut squash and peas as delicious whole food sources of carbohydrates.
4. Go nuts
Almonds, pecans, walnuts or whichever nut you fancy. Nuts contain magnesium which serves to keep your heart rhythm steady, antioxidant vitamin E to prevent the development of plaque in your arteries, healthy fats and fibre. Enjoy one ounce of raw, unsalted nuts every day. Here’s what that looks like:
- Almonds = 23
- Pistachios= 50
- Cashews, pecans, hazelnuts =15
- Walnuts, Macadamias= 10
5. Move every day
Exercise literally strengthens your heart. It also improves circulation, lowers blood pressure, helps the body manage blood sugar, increases energy and boosts mood. But move every day? That may sound daunting if you currently aren’t active right now, but stay with me. If this is the case for you, any gradual increase will benefit your health. Choose an activity you enjoy and gradually work your way up to 30-60 minutes 3-4 times or more per week. But know that regardless of exercise, sitting for long periods of time is bad for the heart. Which is why it is important to move every day, rest days included. Active rest days are days when you don’t necessarily go to the gym or to a class, but keep your body in motion. Avoid sitting for long periods of time, go for a walk, a light jog or do some stretching on your active rest days.
The human body is made to move, so be sure to celebrate that every day!
Chronic stress directly plays on the health of your heart by elevating stress hormones in the body and by triggering unhealthy habits like smoking or overeating that may indirectly hurt your heart. Managing your stress is pivotal to managing your health. In fact, introspective practices like deep breathing, yoga and meditation are gaining traction for their cardioprotective effects. Commit to a daily practice progressively.
- Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables at every meal
- Include 1 ounce of unprocessed chocolate every day (raw cacao powder, cocoa nibs or 80% chocolate)
- Focus on intact grains, whole fruit and vegetables as carbohydrate sources rather than grain-based products
- Limit added sugars
- Enjoy one ounce of raw, unsalted nuts daily
- Move every day, even on rest days
- Start a daily introspective practice
How are you treating your heart today? What is your idea of an active rest day?