One in four — or almost 80 million — Americans have some form of heart disease. It is the No. 1 killer disease in America, and up to half of those deaths could be prevented by changes in lifestyle, with diet leading the troops.
Since February is American Heart Month, registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer highlights the five nutrients that could save your heart, why they are important, and some yummy ways to include them in breakfast, lunch and dinner.
While the “bad” fats like saturated fats in red meat or cheese and trans fats in many processed foods are major players in the development of heart disease, some fats, especially the omega-3 fats, can save your heart.
There are three omega-3s, and the one most important to heart health is DHA. There is typically five to 30 times more DHA than any other omega-3 in heart tissue. This omega-3 lowers blood fats, such as triglycerides, and raises good cholesterol in the blood, called HDL. It also helps regulate the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and improves blood flow through arteries. Salmon and other fatty fish are the best source of DHA. If you can’t afford fish, don’t like it, or are concerned about mercury levels, then look for foods fortified with this omega-3. You need at least two servings of fatty fish a week or 200 milligrams of DHA a day.
There are lots of different types of fiber. The fibers in vegetables and whole wheat are called insoluble fiber, and they help keep you regular and lower colon cancer risk. It is the soluble fibers that will lower your heart disease risk. These fibers, found in fruits, oats and legumes, lower blood cholesterol levels, including the “bad” cholesterol in the blood called LDL-cholesterol, thus reducing your risk for heart disease. You should aim for at least 25 grams of fiber a day, with several sources being soluble fiber.
The B vitamins, especially folate, lower heart disease risk by reducing levels of a compound in the blood called homocysteine. This compound irritates blood vessel walls, increasing inflammation associated with the underlying cause of heart disease, atherosclerosis. Even if your blood cholesterol is low, you could be at risk for heart disease if homocysteine levels are high. Optimal intake of folate-rich foods, such as dark-green leafies, orange juice and legumes, lowers homocysteine levels, thus reducing your risk for heart disease. Aim for two folate-rich foods or at least 400 micrograms daily.
Little oxygen fragments, called free radicals or oxidants, damage artery walls, which contributes to atherosclerosis and heart disease. Maintain a well-stocked arsenal of anti-free radicals or antioxidants and you can sidestep this damage and keep those arteries free and clear. Colorful fruits and vegetables, plain, frozen or juiced, are your main source of all the antioxidants, from vitamin C and beta carotene to the more than 12,000 phytonutrients that have antioxidant effects on preventing disease. Aim for at least eight servings a day.
New research is accumulating showing that the sunshine vitamin — vitamin D — is critical for a healthy heart. For example, a recent review of the research from Loyola University in Chicago found that chronic vitamin D deficiency, which is common in a vast majority of Americans, is a culprit in heart disease, high blood pressure and the metabolic syndrome. The rate of severe heart disease or even death is 30 percent to 50 percent higher in sun-deprived patients with heart disease compared to people with either higher exposure to sunlight or greater intakes of the sunshine vitamin. Adults should aim for 800 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D a day, from fortified foods such as milk, soy milk and orange juice.