You may already know that cardiovascular disease is the #1 cause of death in men and women in the United States today. As such, you may be trying to improve, or maintain, your heart health. It’s really not that difficult if you understand that your heart, like the rest of your body, stays its healthiest with the food you put in it. With that in mind, I’d like to tell you about 10 of the best heart-healthy nutrients you can include in your diet to help make your heart its strongest.
The Best Nutrients to Feed Your Heart
First, it’s important to note that a variety of nutrients have different jobs that keep your heart healthy. These nutrients come in the form of foods, or extracts from foods, made into supplements. Supplements come in handy when you want the benefit of the nutrient without having to eat a lot of food.
I’ve grouped the following nutrients together according to what they are and what they do. Keep in mind though that these nutrients work best in tandem with each other, boosting each other’s effect. Therefore, it’s important to include a little from each category several times a week. Even within each nutrient group, there are many different foods that you can eat to create variety in your diet. Here they are:
Alpha-linolenic (ALA) fatty acids: Along with Omega-3’s (see below), these fatty acids fight inflammation, lower blood pressure, reduce blood clots and protect against heart attack. Good sources are flaxseed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, pumpkin seeds, kale, Brussels sprouts.
Antioxidants: Antioxidants fight free radical damage throughout your body. Part of this free radical damage is the oxidation of blood fats that causes them to harden into dangerous arterial plaques. Vitamins C and E are two of the best heart-healthy, powerhouse antioxidant vitamins there are. Other nutrients include CoQ10 an “energizing” compound that powers your mitochondria (power centers) of your heart cells; resveratrol – from red wine – helps prolong cell life and works against oxidative stress effects in your arteries.
B Vitamins: Vitamin B12 and B6 (folate) protect against blood clots and hardened arteries. Niacin helps reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol. They also help regulate blood sugars which reduces acid pH in arteries. Examples of foods that contain B12 are red meat, salmon, poultry, milk, and eggs. Foods that contain good levels of B6 are potatoes, beans, and bananas.
Carotenoids: These are a subgroup of antioxidants and have the same free radical fighting capacity. They are a large group of yellow-orange foods that contain vitamin A and its precursor beta carotene. They are powerful, heart protective agents that contain lutein, zeaxanthin, and astazanthin. Astazanthin has proved especially beneficial for fighting oxidative stress effects on blood fats – preventing/decreasing the dangerous effects of peroxidase (oxidation) on lipids.
Fiber: Fiber helps your heart by decreasing cholesterol. It does this by sweeping fats out of your colon through elimination. You should get at least 20 grams of fiber a day, but 25-30 would be optimal. Foods that contain high fiber include whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables.
Minerals: There are 4 essential heart-healthy minerals that work in balance to keep your heart beat and heart muscle functioning correctly, as well as normalize blood pressure. These are magnesium, calcium, potassium, sodium. Together they are called electrolytes. Many people are magnesium deficient which can prevent muscles (even heart muscle) from relaxing properly. Good sources of these are dairy, animal meats, fish, cocoa, potatoes, and bananas.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids: This nutrient group helps fight inflammation throughout your body, especially your heart’s vascular system. They also boost the immune system, boost “good” HDL cholesterol, prevent/break up blood clots, and protect against heart attacks and strokes. They do this by helping to dissolve arterial plaques that may form from various reasons.
Phytoestrogens: These are hormone-like nutrients, namely estrogen, that come from plant sources like flaxseed and lignin oils. They have a weak “estrogenizing” effect on your body and can lower the risk of blood clot, stroke, and irregular heartbeats. They are also thought to fight high blood pressure and high triglycerides – markers for cardiovascular disease. Flaxseeds are high in phytoestrogens as are sesame seeds, walnuts, almonds, pistachio nuts, yams, and soy.
Phytosterols: These are nutrients that resemble cholesterol, yet they reduce blood cholesterol and prevent arterial plaques. They aren’t produced in the body so must be gotten from diet or supplement. Examples include rice bran oil (high), corn oil, lettuce, capers, dill pickles, asparagus, nuts, seeds, and wheat germ.
Polyphenols: This is another subgroup of antioxidants as well. They protect against too high, or too low, blood pressure. They are considered “lifespan essentials” as they have been found in research to extend life and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease. Examples include red wine, dark red and blue fruits, black rice, purple potatoes, cranberries, pomegranates, tea (green, black, white), coffee, dark chocolate, and cocoa powder.
As you can see, there are many delicious food sources of the best nutrients that will help keep your heart healthy. Try to include as many of these foods in your diet every day. Of course, there’s always those days when you may miss one or more of these nutrient categories. That’s why it’s important to take a good multi-vitamin supplement every day that includes a healthy level of as many of these nutrients as possible. And don’t forget, a few cups of tea, or a cup of cocoa made from cocoa powder, water and a little stevia can help meet essential nutrient levels. It’s a relaxing break for you and a dose of good medicine for your heart.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.