That dark chocolate truffle you're about to pop into your mouth is actually good for your heart. So are avocados, a glass of red wine and a drizzle of olive oil.
It's National Heart Health Month, and by now, you've heard enough about cutting out saturated fats, sodium and processed carbohydrates from your diet. But food doesn't have to be your adversary. Some foods can actually boost your heart health by lowering cholesterol and reducing blood pressure.
"There's plenty of evidence [that shows] when individuals follow a healthier diet their cholesterol is improved. Exercise also has to be included in the equation," said Dr. Stephen Angeli, chief of cardiology at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. The best way to eat healthy is to cook from scratch at home, avoiding processed and high-sodium foods, Angeli says. He also advises his patients to make a habit of reading food labels and asking restaurant servers for heart-healthy menu options.
Having high cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. It's a tricky balance, however, because we need cholesterol for cellular function.
But when your body has a surplus of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) it builds up plaque on your artery walls, increasing your risk for heart disease.
In contrast, the "good" cholesterols — high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), protect against heart disease, by transporting excess cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver, where it's processed. See our line-up of foods that help to reduce the bad cholesterol in your bloodstream and boost the good cholesterol.
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Improving your heart health doesn't only mean avoiding foods high in saturated and trans fats. It also means increasing the amount of good-for-your-heart foods in your diet. Here are some of those, recommended by Dr. Stephen Angeli and the Mayo Clinic website:
Olive oil/canola oil
These contain monounsaturated fats, which help improve the balance between your "good" and "bad" cholesterols. All fats are high in calories, so consume in moderation.
Also high in the good monounsaturated fats; when eaten as a substitute for saturated fats, blood cholesterol levels decrease, according to Web MD.
The flavanols— which are higher in dark chocolate than milk chocolate— help lower blood pressure and improve vascular function. The Mayo Clinic advises to choose chocolate with a cocoa content of 65 percent or higher and limit your consumption to 3 ounces a day.
Cold-water fish (salmon,mackerel,herring,sardines)
These contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to reduce inflammation in the body and decrease triglycerides and blood pressure. The Mayo Clinic recommends eating at least two servings a week of fish to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Contains soluble fiber which reduces your LDL cholesterol and the absorption of cholesterol in your bloodstream. In addition to eating it as a breakfast cereal, substitute oatmeal for some of the flour in baked goods.
Preliminary evidence suggests that the plant's omega-3's help prevent plaque build-up in arteries and lower cholesterol. Add finely ground flax seed to soups, salads, pastas, cereal, pancakes and muffins.
Dark leafy greens and colorful fruits and veggies
The ultimate health medicine: fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, plant sterols, antioxidants, flavanols and fiber which help lower blood cholesterol, blood pressure and risk of stroke and heart disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables may also help you eat less high-fat foods. Go for color and variety like broccoli rabe, kale, carrots, bell peppers, raspberries and blueberries.
Resveratrol is a compound found in the skin of grapes and red wine, which may prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce bad cholesterol and prevent blood clots. But according to the Mayo Clinic most of the research on this compound has been done on animals and more studies need to be done with people.
— Sachi Fujimori
Learn more about it
WHAT: Rip Esselstyn, author of "Engine 2 Diet" talks about heart-healthy eating.
WHERE: Whole Foods Market, 300 Bergen Town Center, Paramus. 201-226-1244.
WHEN: 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday
A triathlete and Austin, Texas-based firefighter, Rip Esselstyn created the Engine 2 Diet, a plant-based eating plan, to help his fellow engine company members improve their health. One of his colleagues was in serious danger: his cholesterol count was 344 at the age of 33. After a 28-day challenge of eating mostly vegetables, fruits and legumes, this firefighter dropped his cholesterol by 148 points.
Esselstyn is uncomfortable with the label "vegan." Rather his eating philosophy aligns with the "Eat More Plants" manifesto popularized by food writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. He goes a step further, advocating giving up animal products (even chicken and fish), dairy and processed and refined foods. "The number-one killer of Americans is heart disease. And it doesn't need to exist. It can vanish overnight, if people stop putting these foods in their bodies that are allowing this tiger to exist," he said.
He counters the critics who say that a vegetarian diet doesn't provide sufficient protein. He says that plants, nuts and legumes are a better protein source. "We're so brainwashed that the only way to get protein is eggs, meat, chicken and dairy. There's a disconnect [between] what people think is healthy and what is healthy," he said.
— Sachi Fujimori