In the early years of educating the public on eating a healthy diet, the focus was on what foods to omit from the diet. Perhaps this was a reaction to the studies in the 1960’s on the prevalence of heart disease. Very quickly, saturated fat and cholesterol were identified as major culprits and legions of doctors and dietitians began training people on how to reduce their intake of marbled steaks, bacon, cheese, donuts, sausage, etc.
While restricting saturated fat and cholesterol is still relevant, especially if your diet is dominated by animal foods, recent research has identified many foods to include that lower our risk of heart disease. So, eating healthy is as much about inclusion as it is about deprivation. As we explore the foods that have heart healthy benefits we find that it is not difficult to train our palates to enjoy these foods. And in fact, including them can enrich our dining experience. Let’s look at some of these foods as we adopt a healthy habit of inclusion.
We have all heard that olive oil is a heart healthy fat. This is because it lowers total and LDL “bad” cholesterol which reduces the gradual clogging of our blood vessels. The fat in olive oil can also reduce blood clotting reducing our risk of stroke. The flavor of olive oil can add a rich dimension to salad dressings, sautés, and marinades. Replace animal fats with this healthy oil.
Salmon, particularly wild-caught as opposed to farm-raised, has been shown to reduce heart disease risk because of its high omega-3 fat content. In 2002, the American Heart Association released an article Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease stating that omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of heart attack, plaque build up, and lower blood pressure.
Nuts originally got a bad name due to their high fat content. In 1992 researchers working on the Adventist Health Study at Loma Linda University in California reported that those eating nuts daily had up to 60% fewer heart attacks than those who ate nuts less than once per month. The beneficial effect of nut consumption was found for men, women, vegetarians, meat-eaters, overweight people, thin people, the old, the young, those who exercised and those who didn’t. All nuts have health benefits. Adding a handful of nuts a day (no more, even good fat calories still add up) would help reduce heart disease risk, improve blood sugar control and add variety and interest to our eating pattern.
Several studies have shown that a natural plant derivative called stanol and sterol esters lower our LDL cholesterol. How they work is still debatable, but they work. And not only do they remove dietary cholesterol, but they also remove a form of cholesterol that our liver produces. Because of these recent studies, you can find these substances added in several products. Look for orange juice, margarine, and milk labels containing plant stanol/sterol esters. Studies have indicated that consumption of about 2 grams per day provides a reduction in LDL cholesterol of about 10%. Consuming more than 2 grams per day has no benefit.
The mechanism of how all of these foods lower our heart disease risk is different for each food. And many of these foods have other health benefits beyond heart disease. This means that by including them all, we gain a synergistic improvement. Look for future articles as we continue to identify foods to include in a healthy diet.
By Tim Scallon, M.S. R.D. L.D.
Director of the HC Polk Center for Heart Stroke and Diabetes Education
Department of Clinical Nutrition at Memorial Health System of East Texas