February is all about hearts. From Valentine’s Day, where we celebrate and honor the people we love in our life, to American Heart Month, where The American Heart Association and other organizations inform the public more about heart health. Eating your way to a healthier heart is actually pretty easy and may be the BEST thing you can do for those you love in your life!! You can start today by just making a few changes and adding in some of my favorite heart healthy foods.
NOTE: This post may include affiliate links which means that if you click through and purchase, I do receive some small financial benefit which helps me to continue to provide you with free content.
The danger of cardiovascular disease
Statistics tell us that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States and is responsible for “1 in 4 deaths in the U.S.” Lots of things come in to play with causing heart disease and one of the huge factors is genetics, which unfortunately you have no control over. However, lifestyle and nutrition also play a significant role in how the disease develops. Making healthy changes related to your daily habits and food choices may help delay the onset or progression of the disease.
What exactly is cardiovascular disease?
According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease refers to a range of conditions that are all related to the heart and the parts that help make it function.
This condition develops when plaque accumulates on the walls of the arteries, causing the artery to narrow. This condition makes it more difficult for the blood to flow, and if the artery becomes completely blocked or a blood clot forms, it causes a heart attack or a stroke.
The blood flow is blocked to the heart by a blood clot. With a lack of blood flow from that artery the area of the heart begins to die.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is blocked by a clot (ischemic stroke) or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts (hemorrhagic stroke).
Heart failure aka Congestive heart failure
This condition refers to when the heart is unable to pump blood properly thus meaning the body doesn’t get the blood or oxygen that it needs.
Some health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension are connected to cardiovascular or heart disease. When they are present they encourage the development of more complicated health issues that may be related to the heart. Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions that occurs typically in overweight and/or obese and includes: high blood pressure, high blood sugar (diabetes), more abdominal fat and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. The existence of this group of conditions increases the risk of heart disease or stroke.
How has food technology influenced what we eat?
Changes in food technology over the last 50 years or so has created an environment where we now rely less on local markets and the fresh foods they provide. The market and our grocery stores are now full of products that make our life easier in the short run, but the reality is that many of these processed foods are full of added sugars, fat and other chemical components that aren’t found in fresh food, and are not good for our health.
The changes in the availability and access to food has affected people in many different ways, including:
- Increasing snacking and snack foods
- Increasing eating frequency
- Eating more meals outside of the home
- Increasing fast food dining and takeout
- Increasing the number of refined carbohydrates, such as refined grains and added sugar, eaten on a daily basis
- Increase in the amount of vegetable oils consumed
- Increased consumption of meat due to increased production and reduced cost as a result of producing cheap feed
- Decreased consumption of legumes, vegetables and fruits
These changes have all led to the increase in the number of people who are overweight or obese. And this trend is slowly extending to the rest of the world and developing countries as their access to these types of foods increases as well.
According to a study on food technology and food consumption, “Today in the US packaged and processed food supply over 75% of foods have some form of added sugar.” This statistic really shocked and amazed me when I came across it while doing research. That means that every 3 out of 4 packaged or processed food you buy at the store has added sugar in it. That fact is absolutely unbelievable to me!!!
How to eat for heart health
There are numerous strategies or dietary patterns to following when you want to eat for better heart health. My favorite eating pattern is the Mediterranean diet which has performed well at reducing heart disease. But other eating patterns or diets that also appear to be good for your heart are the Healthy US Pattern and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern outlined in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And also the DASH diet. In many ways these diets have one primary thing in common, and that is that they emphasize reducing the consumption of processed foods and increasing the consumption of more fresh, whole foods.
At the heart of the dietary changes you need to make to eat for a healthier heart are the following:
Limiting refined carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates refer to highly processed grains such as white rice and white breads as well as the added sugars found in many processed foods.
Changing white rice for brown rice or even for beans may decrease the risk of health issues such as Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Eliminating or decreasing sugar-sweetened beverages
These beverages account for 50% of the added sugar in the American diet. Making this change may be hard and I totally get it. But eliminating soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages is a change you can make gradually and any improvement you make is good for your health. To start try slowly replacing sugary beverages with water flavored with herbs and fruit or vegetables. It makes the water a bit easier and enjoyable to drink without adding sugar.
Eliminate consumption of trans fats
Avoiding trans fats is a bit easier in the United States today, since they are pretty much banned from being used in processed foods. But you should know that when reading the food labels of processed foods even when it the label says 0 trans fats the product still may contain a slight amount, less than 1 gram, which still may have a negative effect on your health. In my opinion, limiting processed foods and increasing more whole, fresh foods is the best bet to avoid ALL trans fats.
The real danger with trans fatty acids, which are made when liquid fats are altered to form solid fats, is that they have a negative effect on both LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. Meaning they make the bad cholesterol higher and decrease the good cholesterol your body needs which helps you filter out some of that bad cholesterol. It’s like a double whammy on your health!!!
Decrease amount of saturated fats
Saturated fats are another fat to make sure you limit. These fats are mostly found in meats and dairy products. But coconut oil and palm oil are both plant-based sources of these fats. Coconut oil has been all the rage in the recent past, but research and science still doesn’t demonstrate that it is better for our bodies and our hearts, so I caution using it in small amounts and occasional basis.
The best fats to include in your diet are monounsaturated fats which are found in nuts, avocados, olives and olive oil. And of course, you need to be sure to include omega 3 fatty acids in your diet as well which are found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and others. This fatty acid along with omega 6 fatty acid are considered to be essential fats which you need to eat since your body is unable to make them but both are needed for basic function.
Reduce meals with meat, especially red meat
Eating red meat, unprocessed or processed, correlates with a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease than eating poultry, fish or plant-based protein sources. It is not necessary to completely eliminate red meat and other meats from you diet, but simply to limit them to occasional foods. In my opinion, eating more plant-based protein when possible is the best thing you can do for your heart, your health and for the environment.
Choose healthier protein sources
Some protein sources actually show a positive impact on the development of cardiovascular disease in research studies. Using these in place of other animal protein sources is one positive change you can make.
Shown to improve fat levels in the blood and lower CHD.
Shown to reduce multiple CVD risk factors.
Consumption of eggs in moderation is shown to not have a negative effect on CVD.
Studies indicate that eating legumes improves the risk of CVD.
Eat more fruits and vegetables
Eating more fruits and vegetables leads to a reduction of several cofactors that often lead to CVD including blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels (decreasing the bad and improving the good). Plus fruits and vegetables provide lots of other nutrients that help your heart such as antioxidants, potassium and more.
Consider other making lifestyle changes as well to improve risk
It isn’t just about the food you are eating but also how you are living your life. Along with dietary changes, implementing some healthier habits in your life may also reduce your risk of heart disease.
- Managing stress
- Adding or increasing activity and movement
- Quitting smoking
- Making sleep a priority
- Reducing sodium intake
- Reducing consumption of alcoholic beverages
Heart healthy ingredients in today’s recipe
Beans are great because they are a healthy source of protein, but they also help the body reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood. You can choose any bean, but dark or red beans are the best for heart health. I like adzuki beans for their dark red color and their small compact size which I thinks works really well in a salad. Sprouting them instead of cooking them takes a bit more time, but they stay a little bit crunchy and I love that in a salad.
Walnuts are full of omega 3 fatty acids as well as other nutrients which are beneficial to reducing the risk of heart disease. I particularly like to throw a few on a salad rather than just eat them on their own. That way I have more control over exactly how many I eat. In addition, they add a nice crunchy texture to the salad. They also pair really well with the sweetness of the berries and the tartness of the citrus vinaigrette.
Berries are packed full of antioxidants which provide protection in the body against oxidative stress and inflammation which may lead to heart disease. Research supports that eating the antioxidants in these berries helps to reduce some of the risk factors for heart disease.
Avocado and Olive oil
Avocados are my favorite healthy fat and olive oil is my go-to oil for salads and cooking. These monounsaturated fats are shown to reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Tomatoes contain lycopene which has antioxidant properties and helps to reduce the amount of free radicals in the body. This mechanism prevents damage and inflammation caused by oxidative stress which can lead to heart disease.
These grains include unrefined grains such as quinoa, brown rice, barley, buckwheat and more. The increased fiber in these grains help to reduce the “bad” cholesterol in your blood which in turn decreases the risk of heart disease. You can really use any whole grain in the salad, but I chose quinoa because it also adds more protein to the salad.
Spinach or dark leafy greens
Dark leafy greens are full of vitamin K, an essential nutrient which protects your arteries and ensures that the body is able to clot blood correctly. They are also full of nitrates which reduce blood pressure and improve the function of arterial blood flow.
Heart Healthy Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette
Heart healthy salad packed with tons of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Easy to make ahead and take with you to the office.
- 1 1/3 cups adzuki beans, sprouted or cooked
- 2 cups quinoa, cooked
- 4 cups fresh spinach, julienned
- 1 cup sliced cherry tomatoes
- 1 cup sliced strawberries
- ½ cup blueberries or raspberries
- 1/2 avocado
- ½ cup toasted walnuts, chopped
- ¼ yellow onion, chopped
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 ½ T white wine vinegar
- Juice of one lemon
- 1 T fresh orange juice
- ¼ tsp finely grated lemon zest
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Step 1 To make the dressing place onion, vinegar, lemon juice and orange juice in a blender. While the blender is on, slowly add the oil. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. Dressing can be made ahead and refrigerated until ready to serve. Divide up all salad ingredients into bowls, drizzle with dressing.
Taking the salad to go
This salad is super easy to pack up and take to go. I suggest investing in some good, glass containers or jars. I transported mine (shown in the photo above) in a jar and then when I was ready, added the dressing and shook it up to coat the ingredients with the dressing.
The trick to layering the salad to take with you on the go is to place the heavy or dense and wet ingredients on the bottom and the more delicate items on the top. Plus take the dressing in a separate container and mix just before eating so the greens don’t get soggy.
In my jar, I put the quinoa and beans on the bottom (heavy/dense) and then topped them with the berries and tomatoes (wet). Next I put the greens and followed it up with the walnuts and avocado. Then, when ready to eat, I simply added the dressing, gave it a shake and VOILA, lunch was ready.
Want to learn more about how to sprout legumes? Read this post!!!
Check out these posts for more easy to travel meals!!
Would you like to receive my One-Day Plant-based Meal Plan? If so, sign up as a subscriber today and I will send you this FREE GIFT. The plan includes several meal choices for the day and all the recipes you need to prepare them. As a subscriber, you will also receive updates about special offers, my month newsletter, opportunities to provide input on the content you would like to see and more!!