Cardiovascular disease is the single biggest killer of both male and female Americans, causing 1 in 2.9 of all deaths—more than all cancers combined—and currently affects 26% of the population. In Heart Healthy Foods: A Delicious Diet can Lower Cholesterol, we wrote about heart-healthy foods and what makes them healthy, from oatmeal to asparagus to olive oil. Here we will focus on foods that can lower “bad” cholesterol, or LDL, and possibly even raise good cholesterol (HDL).
The basic recipe for healthy eating holds true for a healthy heart—eat lots of fruits and vegetables together with whole grains, supplemented by olive oil, fatty fish twice a week, and occasional poultry, all seasoned with no more than a bit of salt. Such a diet reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke by keeping blood pressure down and maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol in the blood, boosting HDL (which removes cholesterol from the bloodstream) and reducing LDL (which carries cholesterol to artery walls in addition to cells that actually need it). It also reduces blood levels of triglyceride fats, which are also linked with cardiovascular disease. Below are several classes of foods to include in your diet.
Red Wine and Dark Chocolate: Polyphenols
What do sesame seeds, chocolate, cranberries, and grapefruits have in common? They are exceptionally high in polyphenols, the flavor and color in fruits and vegetables. These compounds appear to bolster human health in many ways, including inhibiting cancer and reducing cholesterol, and are being intensively studied. Divided into three categories: tannins, lignans, and flavonoids. All are strong antioxidants and can lower bad LDL cholesterol and, in some cases, increase good HDL.
Tannins are anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, as well as being great antioxidants. They are a well-known component of red wines, coming both from contact with grape skins and seeds during fermentation, as well as from oak barrels in which some wine is aged. Tannins produce the sharp, “dry” taste of unripe fruit, and are high in red foods such as pomegranates, persimmons, red legumes like kidney beans, blackberries, some nuts (walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts), spices like cinnamon and cumin, and dark chocolate. Unfortunately milk chocolate has much less anti-oxidant activity, as the anti-oxidants are in the cocoa and milk interferes with their activity, so stick with the dark, high percentage (more than 35%) cacao bars.
Lignans are phytoestrogens that act as strong antioxidants. Flaxseeds and sesame seeds have very high concentrations, followed by rye, wheat and oat bran, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy, and arugula.
Flavonoids are particularly high in citrus fruits, berries, green and white teas, red wine and red grapes, dark chocolate (the higher the cacao content the higher the antioxidants), and apples. So, an apple a day really does keep the cardiologist away!
Seeds and Nuts: Phytosterols
This is yet another reason nuts and seeds are so healthy, so long as they are replacing other calories in your diet. Phytosterols are found in plants and have a chemical structure very similar to cholesterol, yet act to reduce cholesterol. When humans eat sufficient quantities, such as found in the Mediterranean diet, phytosterols reduce blood levels of cholesterol, enhance the body’s immune response, and decrease the risk of certain cancers. Their cholesterol-reducing ability is so effective that phytosterols are added to processed foods, such as margarines, so they can claim they are “heart healthy.” If you consume phytosterols by eating sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds, soybeans, or pistachios, you get the added benefit of heart-healthy fiber and monounsaturated fats.
Onions and Garlic: Cysteine
Onions and garlic are both members of the Allium family of vegetables and contain cysteine compounds that lower total cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure in cases of hypertension, and slow the rate of plaque growth within coronary arteries. To maximize their benefits, chop before use and allow the pieces to sit for five minutes.
A study published in Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism found that eating a cup of yogurt a day reduced participant’s LDL significantly. If that yogurt contains healthy bacteria, also called probiotic yogurt, blood levels of HDL rose significantly. If you choose nonfat yogurt, you can avoid consuming the cholesterol present in milk fat, meaning you can have your cake and eat it too.
A heart-healthy diet should be combined with regular exercise, monitoring blood pressure and blood sugar levels, keeping a healthy weight, and stopping smoking (if you smoke). The American Heart Association calls them The Simple 7.
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco–based yoga instructor.
This article is not intended as medical advice. Always consult your doctor or healthcare professional before starting a new diet or exercise program.