This week, I will share one of my favorite topics: Heart health nutrition. I also interview a friend and well-respected dietitian, Michelle Smith, MS, RD.
We both give you some tips and takeaways to keep your heart and your blood vessels strong. Happy reading!
What is your number one lifestyle tip for heart health?
Stress is very bad for your heart. It raises blood pressure, robs your body of nutrients, hormones, and causes damaging chemicals in the body to be produced!
My number one lifestyle tip for heart health: Find ways every day to limit stress and find joy in challenges rather than frustration.
Find joy and a sense of calm in simple things. This might mean snuggling a pet or going for a walk. It might mean finding an essential oil that helps you chill out or feel happy. Sometimes it takes some work to find the joy in stressful situations: find a word or image that calms you and visualize it. Think, “What am I learning and gaining from this?”
My number one lifestyle tip for a healthy heart would have to be exercise.
Making sure that you are at least getting 30 minutes of physical activity a day, at the very minimum, can lead to some really amazing benefits for your heart.
Exercise acts as a stress reliever, and can help to keep the detrimental effects of stress at bay. And, exercising helps us to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Just remember to be realistic when you start engaging in physical activity.
Start by walking a few times a week or going to a class a couple of times a week.
Don’t overload yourself at once, instead build a sustainable habit and you’ll be an avid exerciser before you know it!
It’s February, the month of love! How does food affect ‘lovin?
This tip is for the guys out there! Vegetables are your friend. They can increase blood supply to the tiny vessels where you want it the most.
But don’t wait to add veggies until the damage is already done.
My favorite picks for these are celery, spinach, broccoli, kale, beets.
Also, don’t forget vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to low testosterone, and even some clinical study shows some benefit of supplemental vitamin D in normalizing testosterone. Vitamin D also affects the blood vessel wall in a positive way, making it function better.
Heart disease and erectile dysfunction actually share a root cause, blood vessels that are diseased. So increasing plant-foods can actually improve both of these issues, at once! In specific, pistachios and watermelon have been shown to improve blood flow and improve function.
Also, get exercising!
Exercising has been shown to improve sex lives’ because of its ability to improve stamina. So after those handfuls of pistachios and slices of watermelons, get to the gym!
What is your top heart-healthy food?
There are so many! But I would say raw broccoli or broccoli sprouts remain at the top of the list for me. It has beneficial hormonal and immune actions in the gut that signal to the heart, it dampens inflammation, it increases the cellular house-keeping!
Plus, raw broccoli has anti-cancer benefits to boot. Along with all vegetables, it helps keep cholesterol and triglycerides down as well as blood pressure. That’s some powerful medicine!
Since Heidi went the vegetable route, I’ll go with a fruit! My pick here would have to be berries, hands-down.
Berries are not only a deliciously sweet treat, but they are a pretty powerful food when it comes to heart health. These fruits are a source of soluble fiber, which actually has the ability to reduce the absorption of cholesterol.
Berries are also among the most rich sources of phytonutrients on the planet. Phytonutrients are compounds that can provide health benefits to us, like antioxidants. Which can benefit the health of our hearts, at a cellular level!
Any specific nutrient that can promote heart health?
Based on the number of observational studies and now even clinical studies, I would say vitamin D is my favorite heart nutrient. So many people remain deficient and don’t even realize it.
So many people even supplement vitamin D and remain deficient. The primary reason: lack of adequate sun exposure. This isn’t likely to change due to modern lifestyles.
Check vitamin D levels, supplement accordingly, and consider a UV-B lamp.
I spoke with an RD colleague in Greece, Marios Dimopoulos, RD, and vitamin D deficiency is common here as well because of lifestyles being so indoors and adoption of unhealthy lifestyle patterns.
Vitamin D, because it is a hormone, will impact just about every aspect of your heart and vascular system.
Fiber, fiber, fiber. Unfortunately the majority of Americans are eating nowhere near the recommended intake of fiber, (the recommended intake for men is 38 grams per day, and for women 25 grams per day.)
However, fiber is major component of almost every food that is considered to be heart healthy!
Remember those berries I mentioned above? Eat just 1 serving, or ½ cup of raspberries, and you are at almost 20% of how much fiber you need for the day. Not to mention all of those phytonutrients.
Increasing your fiber, from whole foods not supplements, is a great way to take care of your heart because you’ll be increasing your intake of whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits!
Do certain people need to be more worried about heart health than others?
I would say we all need to nurture and love our heart with a good diet and lifestyle. Some people have family histories of cardiovascular disease as well, making it extra important to be vigilant about diet, medical follow up, and identification of signs and symptoms of myocardial infarction.
Yet, we are seeing young people alarmingly have cardiac issues, which HAS to be related to diet and lifestyle.
Heart disease tends to be a chronic condition, and usually seen in older adults, however like Heidi mentioned, we are really beginning to see younger people experience issues with the health of their hearts.
Also those that are overweight, have a family history of heart disease, smoke, are not regularly active, and don’t follow a balanced, and healthy diet can be at an increased risk.
What is the most important change in the diet that people can make to protect their heart?
In the modern age of processed foods and incognito sugar, I say limiting added sugars as much as humanly possible.
Sugars create a cascade of inflammation and hormonal issues, like surges in insulin and thyroid problems, which cause the body to store calories very efficiently.
Sugar also affects the body’s cholesterol in a way that it is more likely to be deposited in the arteries! It changes the signaling in just about every organ, increasing the rates of ALL chronic diseases.
Follow a more whole-food, plant-based diet! Even if you aren’t ready to go 100% plant-based, that’s okay. Just incorporate more plant foods. Add beans to your soups, garnish your salad with walnuts and flaxseeds, opt for whole grains rather than refined, enjoy a dark chocolate and dried fruit snack, and make vegetables the main component of your meals.
When we include more plant foods we get the benefits from the variety of nutrients they can provide to the diet, while avoiding the nutrients we want to minimize, like cholesterol and saturated fats. So, create more of a plant-powered plate!
What do you think about coconut?
Coconut has been such a hot topic in the news, and the headlines are nothing short of misleading. Let’s look at the facts. Coconut is a natural food that is low in sugar, carries fiber in its whole form, and is high in a type of fat that likely does not cause harm to the heart.
Excessive amounts of anything aren’t good, so use common sense. If you use coconut oil, choose organic, unrefined, virgin oils. Even better, eat it as a whole food if you can.
In its whole form, coconuts, like Heidi mentioned above, are a food that provide fiber to the diet, and a variety of minerals like copper, manganese, and even a bit of iron. When it comes to coconut oil, I am not a huge fan.
In my pantry you’ll find two oils- flaxseed (for my omega-3 status) and olive oil (for my salad dressing).
However I personally consider oils to be a processed food, so I minimize them in my diet. However, if you do want to indulge in some coconut oil, pick the least processed, most nutrient-rich option, like the organic, unrefined oils that are not exposed to high heat during their processing.
Do you have go-to for heart healthy recipes?
My recipe rule-of-thumb: be a Google search engine expert. The recipe should be vegetables as the main ingredient, protein as the second, spices as the third. This might be a main dish salad or stir fry.
Fruits as dessert! Everything else is less likely to have a benefit to the heart. I do include some grains, like organic whole oats, but always with lots of spices and nuts added.
I would say an oatmeal recipe for sure. A serving of oats, with soymilk, topped with walnuts, blueberries, and ground flaxseed would be a great heart healthy way to start your day!
For more information about Michelle, check out her website here: SensiblySprouted.com
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 20 years, has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. Has researched supplements and plants as medicine throughout her career. Loves helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.