To celebrate Healthy Heart Month, nutritionist Sarah Flower brings you the essential guide to eating for a healthy heart
We have all heard the saying ‘we are what we eat’, with a belief that a good diet can help protect us from ill-health. Dr Carl Pfeiffer, a pioneer in nutritional medicine believed that ‘With adequate intake of micronutrients, most chronic disease won’t exist’.
We live in a world where our food is heavily processed, laden with sugar and artificial chemicals. We exercise less, have more stress, and spend less time in the sunshine. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the UK yet we can all do more to help prevent it.
With adequate intake of micronutrients, most chronic disease won’t exist
I believe eating a healthy, home-cooked diet rich in nutrients is the key to not only protecting our heart but fortifying our bodies against a variety of ill-health. Ditch the junk and processed options, stop counting calories and switch to eating real food. I have put together a list of foods that can help protect your heart, but overall you will see a pattern – fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish, grass-fed meat, nuts and seeds are the real superfoods.
Fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish, grass-fed meat, nuts and seeds are the real superfoods
Here are 13 nutrients you can mix into your meals to achieve a heart-healthy diet:
1.Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids
Think of the Mediterranean diet, rich in oils and fresh fish. You gain the short-chain monosaturated fatty acids (oleic acid) from the olive oil which has been shown to help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids such as EPA and DHA can help prevent inflammation throughout the body as well as protect against cardiovascular disease.
Found in: Oily Fish, nuts and seeds, seed oils.
Magnesium plays a vital role in the production of a type of energy called ATP. Muscles need this energy in order to relax – the heart is a muscle and studies have shown that good levels of magnesium can help prevent stroke, and heart attacks. Magnesium is vital for good health and somewhat neglected in the western world. Women tend to be more deficient than men. Stress also depletes our reserves of magnesium so topping up is vital.
Found in: Nuts, Seeds, Green Leafy vegetables, pulses such as red lentils. If you are concerned about your magnesium levels, take a daily supplement, but ensure it is magnesium citrate as this is the most bioavailable form. You can also add Epsom salts to your bath as you will absorb their magnesium through the skin.
3. Co-Enzyme Q10
Known for helping with energy production alongside Magnesium, Co-Q10 is also a powerful antioxidant and can work well with selenium, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc to help protect our arteries from damage. It is also worth noting that anyone taking statins will have lower levels of CoQ10, so may need to take a daily supplement.
Found in: Meat, eggs and fish.
4. Vitamin D
We are starting to recognise the benefits of vitamin D from sun exposure to help protect us from a variety of diseases, but particularly heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes. In fact research has shown a 40 per cent higher risk of heart disease when deficient of vitamin D and a massive 81 per cent higher chance of dying from heart disease.
Found in: The best source is sunshine, but you can also gain a little from fish (especially fish liver), some mushrooms and eggs.
Just like Omega 3 oils, zinc can help prevent inflammation though the creation of anti-inflammatory cytokines. Zinc has also been shown to have protective properties, particularly for coronary artery disease and can help improve cardiac function.
Found in: Pumpkin seeds, nuts and seeds, shellfish.
6. Vitamin C
A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C, alongside vitamin E, Zinc and Co-Q10 work together to help protect you from cardiovascular disease and cellular damage. Vitamin C has also been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol, whilst also significantly helping to improve HDL levels, as a result those who have higher levels of vitamin C in their diet, have less risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Found in: Fresh fruit, particularly berries, parsley, red onions.
7. Vitamin E
Known for its antioxidant and protective properties, Vitamin E can also help reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL levels. It can also help improve endothelial cell function. However, to gain optimum benefit from vitamin E, you also need to have a good source of vitamin C, selenium and Co-Q10 in your diet.
Found in: Avocados, nuts and seeds.
It has been documented that those who have a low level of selenium have a higher risk of heart disease. Selenium needs to work alongside vitamin E, vitamin C and Co-Q10, so before you reach for a selenium-rich supplement, you may want to consider a more general antioxidant as well as increasing your antioxidant-rich foods.
Found In: Brazil nuts, seaweed.
You wouldn’t necessarily relate a lack of healthy gut bacteria and heart disease, however, studies have shown that poor gut health (especially leaky gut syndrome which many of us suffer due to overexposure to wheat) can create systemic inflammation. Weakened gut health can also lead to poor absorption of nutrients, which in turn can also affect heart health as well as lower the immune system.
Found in: Fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, kefir. Beware that supermarket probiotic yoghurt drinks can contain a huge amount of sugar and research has shown the active probiotic may not reach the lower intestine. If you’re concerned about gut health, I would advise taking a probiotic capsule. I would recommend Nutrigold Acidophilus.
This is the compound found in garlic, the one responsible for the garlic smell. However, it also has a powerful affect on our heart health and blood pressure, as it can help relax the blood vessels and improve blood flow. Eat garlic every day in foods, crushing it gently and leaving for 15 minutes before using is said to enhance its effects
Found in: Garlic. I prefer to use garlic in my
food, but you can take a daily supplement, though I would not recommend an odourless variety as this may reduce the allicin content.
Lycopene is a carotenoid, which has been shown to help protect against a range of cancers as well as heart disease. There is strong evidence to show that the intimal wall thickness and risk of myocardial infarction are reduced with higher adipose tissue concentrations of lycopene. It has many benefits including helping to increase flexibility of our arteries and improve the function of the endothelial tissue, protecting against arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
Found in: Cooked tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, peppers, papaya, water melon, red cabbage and asparagus. For real benefits, I would recommend a daily supplementation of at least 15mg. One capsule delivers the equivalent of 6lbs of tomatoes. My favourite is Cardiomato as it also contains the essential fats in the form of Vitamin E to aid absorption alongside phytosterols and beta-carotene, one a day high strength capsule.
Studies have shown that L-Arginine can help lower blood pressure. It can also help protect us against heart disease. It’s abundant in nuts and research has shown that those who eat more than 5oz of nuts a week have significantly less heart disease.
Found in: Beans, nuts (such as almonds and walnuts), oats and cold water fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel.
Taurine plays a vital role in the health of our arteries and general heart health. Studies have shown that those with lower L-Taurine levels are more susceptible to heart disease.
Found in: Red meat, eggs, seafood.
Sarah Flower is a nutritionist and author of 15 recipe and health books. Sarah is also ambassador for Jamie Oliver Food Revolution and campaigner for healthy eating; teaching healthy eating education and cookery in schools as well as corporate businesses. For more information visit sarahflower.co.uk or follow her on Twitter: @MsSarahFlower