Last week my husband ended up in a cardiac intensive care unit. Turned out he had 90% blockage in a coronary artery and needed an emergency angioplasty. How could this have happened to a fit, healthy eater who exercises regularly? Well, he is over 50 and there is a history of heart disease in his family. This unexpected scare drove home to me the need to eat plenty of heart-healthy foods that will help keep our cholesterol in the excellent range and reduce our risk of heart disease.
Most of us know that cholesterol in our blood can build up in our arteries and that we want to keep levels of “bad” cholesterol, or low-density lipoproteins (LDL), below 100 mg/dl in our bloodstream, and increase our levels of “good” cholesterol, or high-density lipoproteins (HDL) to over 60 mg/dl, according to the Mayo Clinic. There are drugs, such as statins, that can do this for you, but the best way is through a healthy diet. A study in the July 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association compared a whole foods diet with treatment by statin drugs, and found the whole foods approach to be just as effective.
So, what are these foods that can lower LDL and raise HDL? Aside from omega-3-rich cold-water fish like salmon, they are all in the plant kingdom. (See The Skinny on Fatty Acids for why omega-3s are good for you.) Oatmeal, nuts, berries, avocados, beans, and olive oil are some of the important foods to include in a heart-healthy diet. Their benefits come from soluble fiber, antioxidants, and oleic acid.
Soluble fiber actually reduces LDL in the blood as much as 20-30%, and can be found in oatmeal and barley; beans; nuts; peas; flax seeds; fruits, including apples, citrus fruits, bananas and strawberries; vegetables such as broccoli and carrots; and psyllium husk. The soluble fiber in these foods decreases the absorption of cholesterol by binding to cholesterol-containing bile, which our bodies then excrete rather than reabsorb. Then the body needs to remove additional LDL from the blood to create new bile, which is essential for digestion, thereby reinforcing the LDL-reduction cycle.
Antioxidants: Niacin (Vitamin B3), Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Beta-carotene
All potent antioxidants, these nutrients stop LDL cholesterol from causing atherosclerosis, or the build-up of cholesterol in the form of plaque in the arteries. LDL particles appear to be harmless until they are oxidized by free radicals. Antioxidants prevent oxidation. Studies show niacin can decrease cholesterol levels by 10-26% and to decrease heart attack recurrence by 29%. Niacin can even raise the levels of good HDL in the blood. Great sources of niacin include asparagus and crimini mushrooms, in addition to fish like salmon, halibut and tuna, plus chicken, turkey and venison. Foods high in vitamin C include papaya (the highest food source), citrus fruits, broccoli, red bell peppers, strawberries, kale, Brussels sprouts, and kiwifruit, among many others. Vitamin E can be had from leafy greens such as Swiss chard, spinach, and kale; almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds. For beta-carotene, turn to orange foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash, or kale.
Oleic acid and other monounsaturated fats also decrease the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and help reduce overall cholesterol levels. The particularly high levels of oleic acid in extra-virgin olive oil explain why the “Mediterranean diet” protects against heart disease. Other good sources of monounsaturated fats are avocados, almonds, cashews, peanuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. People who replace saturated fats in their diet with monounsaturated fats see a 13% reduction in total cholesterol levels and an 18% reduction of LDL cholesterol. Some olive oil labeling can be misleading, so look for cold-pressed, unfiltered, extra-virgin olive oil. It should look cloudy and be in a dark bottle.
A heart-healthy diet can be delicious as well as good for you. How about a salad with tuna, avocado, red bell pepper, and extra virgin olive oil? There are many foods that can help keep cholesterol in check and benefit the heart, including yummy dark chocolate. The World’s Healthiest Foods is a great resource for summaries of research on cholesterol and recipes of hearty healthy foods. It’s never too late to help lower your risk of heart disease by improving your diet. Your heart—and your family—will thank you.
- Rebecca Taggart