This or that: foods for a healthier heart

February 27, 2014

More than 26.5 million Americans are currently diagnosed with heart disease. And while it is difficult to reverse, it can be prevented through subtle lifestyle modifications.  By changing your diet and making more health-conscious food choices, your risk of heart disease can decrease drastically. 

By choosing healthier foods, you could greatly decrease your risk for heart disease.

By choosing healthier foods, you could greatly decrease your risk for heart disease.

“There isn’t a single food that will completely take away your risk for heart disease, but a healthy combination of foods can help lower it,” says Joy Wahawisan, Pharm.D., BCPS, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy in Kingsville. Wahawisan has extensive experience consulting non-ICU cardiac patients after they’ve suffered heart attacks or strokes.   

One of the major causes of heart disease is formed by a buildup of plaque in the arteries that can take years or decades to develop. This plaque causes the arteries to close, which then ceases oxygen flow to the heart and causes heart attacks. It can also cause a lack of required oxygen to the brain that can lead to strokes.

The key to keeping plaque from the arteries is to eat healthy foods that are low in cholesterol. But while some people attempt to limit their food intake, it is not always the best way to go about their diet.

“Most people approach heart-conscious diets with the idea that they should eat less food,” says Wahawisan. “In reality, you should focus on eating more of the right types of foods.”

Wahawisan recommends the following diet modifications to help prevent heart disease:

1. Add more nutrients

Eat more fiber to slow the progression of heart disease and to reduce cholesterol made by your liver. Fiber causes you to feel full for longer, so you won’t overindulge in foods that are unhealthy. Lean, muscle-building protein—like chicken, fish, egg whites, and Greek yogurt—can also protect your heart from a number of cardiovascular diseases.

“Iron-rich foods—like beans, spinach, and whole grain—are also beneficial, as they can help carry oxygen through your body,” suggests Wahawisan.

Foods with antioxidants like Vitamin A, C, and E, can also help your cells maintain equilibrium. Because they are constantly growing and dying, it is important to ensure your cells remain balanced so they can keep your body in tip-top shape. Add sweet potatoes, carrots, berries and other antioxidants[CK1]  to maintain cell health and promote wellness.  

“The most important thing to remember when adding nutrients to your diet is to not overdo it on dietary supplements,” advises Wahawisan. “You should be getting your nutrients directly from natural foods, not from an artificial supplement.”

2. Limit fats

Some fats can be good for you in moderation, like the unsaturated fats in nuts and olive oils, while other types of fat can lead to an increase in artery-clogging plaque.

Saturated fats—like those in red meats and dairy products—can cause artery blockage if eaten in excessive amounts. Trans fat acts as a preservative for many prepackaged foods and also leads to heart disease.

“The healthiest amount of trans fat is no trans fat,” urges Wahawisan.

Instead of eating large amounts of saturated or trans fat, add more fish, nuts and olive oil to your diet. These foods have been directly linked to lowering cholesterol and your risk for heart disease.

3. Reduce sodium

If you can help it, don’t add extra salt to your meals for flavoring. High sodium content is also found in condiments, canned soups, and frozen dinners, but there are healthier alternatives. Many of your favorite high-sodium culprits are available in a lower sodium option. 

“Try to keep your salt intake under 500mg per serving in order to maintain good blood pressure,” notes Wahawisan.  “Over time, a low blood pressure can help to prevent conditions like heart failure and stroke.”


— Kendall Cherry

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