What to Eat to Treat Heart Disease
Heart disease affects all six immune centers.
Wherever you go, go with your whole heart, advised Confucius. The best place to take that whole heart these days would be the dinner table, if you need immune support.
Chicken soup (with or without the chicken) is not only good for the soul, it’s pretty good therapy for the heart—in fact, for the whole cardiovascular system. hT at bisque, chowder, or consommé is triply therapeutic if you add cardio-protective herbs such as cayenne, garlic, or baby greens. The right foods can play a major part in keeping your cardio immune center (heart, lungs, and blood vessels) well and then some. And it can’t be a half-hearted effort.
Have a Heart, Not a Heart Disease
One out of every fifty-eight Americans, or seventeen out of every thousand, says the National Health Institute, has atherosclerosis. More than 1.2 million of us suffer from cardiovascular disease (CVD), which covers a broad spectrum of disorders, including stroke, congestive heart failure, and birth defects of the heart and blood vessels. Heart attacks and strokes account for at least 40 percent of deaths from all causes, making CVD the number one killer each year. hTe incidence of death from heart attack is rising even among younger people ages 18 to 34. Many factors contribute, including high blood pressure, high bad cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, low good HDL cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle. Other artery-damaging factors include high levels of glucose, iron, homocysteine, and fibrinogen and nonoptimal levels of C-reactive protein (CRP).
A smoothly functioning cardiovascular system is the result of good genes (having one parent with early heart disease doubles your own risk of cardio dysfunction), a targeted diet, exercise, weight in the normal range, and stress control. Stress may even top the list. A constant outpouring of stress hormones sets you up for heart disease like nothing else, cautions the American Heart Association, since these hormones release inflammatory chemicals, which allow LDL (bad) cholesterol to seep into arteries and stay there.
What to Eat
After all those fight-or-flight triggers, there’s food—the good, the bad, and the in-between. A heart-smart diet if you’re smart should contain plenty of low-fat vegetables and be rich in fiber, such as fruits, grains, and legumes. For add-on value, have a few nuts on the side—especially walnuts, which according to the ADA are helpful in preventing heart disease (therapeutic dose is one to two ounces daily). This is because the walnut appears to have a lower level of CRP, a marker for inflammation in the body. According to recent studies, traditional Mediterranean and Asian diets that are rich in nuts are associated with comparatively low rates of cardiovascular disease. Regular nut consumption may decrease the risk of heart disease by up to 50 percent. All nuts provide good fats, but walnuts provide alpha-linoleic as well as alpha-linolenic acids, along with the amino acid arginine, the B vitamin folic acid, fiber, and gamma-tocopherol (vitamin E), so their cardio-protective qualities include increased nitric acid formation, inhibited platelet aggregation, and decreased homocysteine levels.
Heart-boosting, cholesterol-lowering ingredients for the salad plate, soup bowl, and skillet include (but are not limited to):
- Extra-virgin olive oil provides abundant phenolic antioxidant compounds.
- Fish oils, flaxseed oil, and hemp seed oils provide omega-3 oils.
- Ginger is rich in compounds that relax the muscles surrounding the blood vessels and improve circulation.
- Turmeric, the spice that gives curry its color, has been shown to reduce blood vessel inflammation. In place of the spice itself, take a capsule of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. The therapeutic daily dose is 400 to 600 milligrams.
- Garlic reduces the clotting tendency of the blood, helping to protect against strokes and heart attacks. (But it is contraindicated if you are on an aspirin or anticoagulant, such as warfarin, etc.) Even better, aged garlic extract (AGE), sold as a supplement, lowers total cholesterol, raises HDL, thins the blood, and lowers blood pressure—amazing benefits for an inexpensive, unassuming, ubiquitously useful everyday food.
Less Sodium, More Immunity. Shoot for 2,500 milligrams (less is even better) of sodium daily from meals, soup bowl, and shaker, keeping a sharp eye out for unlikely sources. It is not just in chips but also in vegetable juice cocktail (540 mg per 8-ounce glass) and rice pilaf mix (as much as 700 mg per 1 cup serving). In the susceptible, sodium can raise blood pressure and damage the heart and kidneys at high levels.
Baby Your Heart with Spinach. Besides watching sodium, upping potassium is critical, so pencil in a bowl of cream of spinach soup weekly and keep baby spinach around for quick salads. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, adding another 2,340 milligrams of this companion mineral to sodium to your diet (if your daily diet’s supplying no more than the average 2,500 mg) may help you lower your blood pressure by as much as 25 percent, even preventing hypertension in the first place. Good sources of potassium (which also helps prevent stroke) include orange juice, raisins, cantaloupe, baked potatoes, and sea vegetables. It’s thought that potassium (like diuretics) dilates blood vessels, causing them to relax. A pomegranate juice cocktail can also reduce plaque in the arteries, if it’s there, by up to 33 percent. A few near beers can also help lower this plaque, say Spanish researchers (hops is the therapeutic ingredient, not alcohol).
The Peanut Butter Effect. Think nuts, legumes, and grains. Nonhydrogenated peanut butter is a good source of vitamin E, and a spoonful a day can also help keep cholesterol low. (Ditto raw almonds: a handful a day, unsalted and raw.) Look for brands enhanced with omega-3 oils. Spread it on soy or oat bread or whole-grain crackers, and you have a triple threat cardio snack. Oats provide fiber and vitamin B6, which reduces homocysteine levels. Oatmeal is good, but oat bran is even better, providing twice the beta-glucan of oatmeal for lowering cholesterol 10 to 15 percent, providing roughage and stabilizing blood sugar.
Soy Immunity. Soy as a food or a “milk” provides isoflavones, which lower both total cholesterol and LDL and increase HDL. Aim for 30 to 60 milligrams of this compound daily from soy protein powders or soy foods.
Fruit Cocktail, Not Coronary Events. Fruit is your heart-healthy friend, too. A couple of kiwis a day can help lower your triglycerides by as much as 15 percent, as well as reducing platelet stickiness, according to Norwegian researchers. The fuzzy plum-sized New Zealand fruit also provides vitamin C and even vitamin E. Or take watermelon to heart. This juicy red fruit provides the amino acid citrulline, which protects against stroke, helps you heal from injuries, and lowers blood pressure.
Have a “big Mac” that’s heart healthy. The pectin fiber in two apples (any variety) a day or twelve ounces of apple juice (or apple consommé) appears to keep bad LDL cholesterol from sticking to artery walls and damaging the cardio system. An improved blood profile can appear after only six weeks (no points for a high-fat, highcarb apple pie), say researchers at University of California–Davis.
Berries also belong on the cardio-protective menu. Reports from researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Oxford, Mississippi, indicate that blueberries in particular contain a compound called pterostilbene, which even in small doses appears to have the ability to lower cholesterol as effectively as some heart drugs by activating a cell receptor that helps lower blood fats, including cholesterol. The blueberry is also a richer source of antioxidants than thirty-nine other common fruits and vegetables.
Healthy Decadence. Dark chocolate also delays the body’s absorption of LDL by as much as 8 percent, say researchers at Penn State University, while some Italian studies indicate dark chocolate boosts blood antioxidant levels by as much as 20 percent. Half an ounce a day is the therapeutic dose. But keep it dark: adding milk to chocolate cancels the antioxidant benefits. Also, chocolate contains satiric acid, a unique saturated fat that does not elevate cholesterol levels the way other saturated fats do. Dark chocolate also provides flavonoids that improve the functioning of the endothelial cells in the arteries.
Small Meals and Sterol-Supplemented Spreads. The tocotrienols found in rice bran, palm oil, and vitamin E–tocotrienol supplements also appear to affect cholesterol metabolism in a way similar to statin drugs. Snacking on six meals a day has a favorable effect on cholesterol. When you do give in to the bread-and-butter urge, use a butter substitute that contains cholesterol-lowering plant-based sterol esters (found in small amounts in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), which can lower LDL by as much as 13 percent.
And don’t neglect a daily glass of soy milk and an occasional glass of red wine. hT e latter is rich in cholesterol-blocking phytochemicals called saponins. Or bottoms up with grape juice, which provides compounds called flavonoids, which reduce blood-clotting tendencies (also found in apples and onions). Grapes also provide resveratrol, which inhibit cancer growth.
Soup Up, Blood Pressure Down. One of the best defenses to lower blood pressure is a mug of vegetarian vegetable soup a few times a week, with a little whole-grain bread on the side or sprouts on top. Blood pressure regulators from the garden include celery, garlic, tomatoes, and broccoli (or, better, broccoli sprouts). Broccoli delivers sulforaphane glucosinolate (SGS), which activates the body’s natural detoxification system and antioxidant enzymes, helping protect the body from hypertension, atherosclerosis, and elevated cholesterol. Broccoli sprouts are even higher in SGS.
Beans and grains provide heart- and bowl-healthy fiber, as well as fiber that lowers CRP, elevated levels of which can lead to atherosclerosis. A high-fiber habit (aim for 30 to 35 g daily) may reduce your risk or a cardio crisis by as much as 50 percent. A study from the Annals of Internal Medicine analyzing data from studies of more than 300,000 participants concluded that for every 10 grams of fiber consumed there is a 14 percent reduction for all coronary events and a 27 percent reduction in coronary deaths.
Cardio-Protective Tomatoes. Tomatoes in your bowl or on your plate give you hypertension-placating lycopene (also found in grapefruit, watermelon, and apricots). Tomatoes also supply vitamin K, which protects the skeleton and keeps the blood-clotting function normal.
Celery and Edamame. Don’t forget high-fiber celery. Recent lab tests suggest that celery may help decrease your total cholesterol, decrease your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and lower your blood pressure, something traditional Chinese medicine has always known. Top that celery with a sprinkle of ground flaxseed, which lowers LDL cholesterol (keep a shaker in the fridge). Another good fiber-rich, cholesterol-lowering snack to replace chips are unsalted, blanched edamame (soybeans) with a nutty, sweet flavor that is rich in protein.
A Slice of All-Star Pumpkin Pie. A little pumpkin (steamed, baked, or stewed ) in your diet wouldn’t hurt. Although they are grown in six of the seven continents, they aren’t represented in six out of seven of our diets. But they should be, since they supply all-star heart-health nutrients, including zinc, omega-3s, vitamin E, folate, and magnesium.
Tea. That super immunity meal that gets you better gets even better if you wash it down with an occasional cup of hawthorn, linden, or yarrow tea. Three cups a day of these therapeutic tisanes can help lower blood pressure and relieve stress. (Stress leads to elevated blood pressure.) Ditto hibiscus, which is tasty hot or iced. To make a tea blend, combine 3 tablespoons each of loose leaves and use 1 teaspoon of the combo daily to brew a healing cup. Don’t like tea? Make your own elixir, using liquid forms of all three herbs.
What Not to Eat: Foods to Subtract
Heart-hazardous ingredients include trans fats. Processed foods like microwave popcorn, instant noodles, processed cheeses, and even some low-fat milks have trans fats, which can clog arteries and lead to stroke and heart attacks. Trans fats boost LDL, lower HDL, and can triple your risk of a heart attack. Until recently, Americans were averaging 5.8 grams daily. Not healthy. Get to zero.
Controlling carbs and calories is also heart insurance. According to a 2004 National Academy of Sciences report, consistently eating an 1,100- to 1,950-calorie diet made up of 26 percent protein, 28 percent fat, and 46 percent carbohydrate can produce the vascular health of a twenty-year-old.