Your heart, quite literally, depends on what’s on your plate. There’s no doubt about that. Prabhakar Shetty, head of cardiology, Columbia Asia Referral Hospital, Bangalore, says diet plays a definite role in cardiac health.
His list of heart-healthy foods reads like this: A low-sodium diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products helps lower blood pressure; a diet low in simple sugars helps control blood sugar (diabetes is a risk factor for heart diseases and strokes); a diet low in simple sugars and saturated fats, and rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats helps improve cholesterol levels. Fruits, vegetables and nuts are all rich in antioxidants which are known to decrease plaque inflammation and, thereby, the risk of a heart attack.
That said, there are some foods that are absolutely crucial to ensure your heart stays out of harm’s way. To make it easier for you, we have listed the foods you should have—ideally, every day—to keep your heart beating just right.
Reduce homocysteine in blood
Homocysteine, an amino acid which is produced as a by-product during the digestion of protein, rivals elevated blood cholesterol as a major risk factor for heart disease. “In fact an elevated homocysteine contributes to about 10% of deaths due to cardiovascular disease,” says Vinod Sharma, head of cardiology services, National Heart Institute, New Delhi. “Cardiovascular disease risk grows as homocysteine increases as high levels damage the blood vessels and promote blood clotting,” he adds.
Homocysteine needs vitamin B (particularly folate) and C for its recycling. So a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables—excellent sources of vitamin B6, folic acid and vitamin C—is important to keep its levels in control.
“Eating more leafy green vegetables can help lower your homocysteine level by increasing the amount of folate you get in your diet. And spinach is a very good vegetarian source of folate (other sources include breakfast cereals, fortified grain products, lentils), so it helps bring down levels of homocysteine,” says Ishi Khosla, clinical nutritionist and founder of Theweightmonitor.com.
Quick recipe: Mix blanched spinach, orange sections, olive oil and lime juice. Or add fresh chopped spinach as a layer to your omelette. Try adding boiled spinach to rice—it tastes fabulous.
“Antioxidant vitamin C in oranges protects the artery walls and the folic acid carries artery-clogging homocysteine out of your system,” adds Khosla.
Quick recipe: Whip up a smoothie by combining 1 peeled orange, 1 cup low-fat yogurt or milk, ice cubes and a splash of vanilla in a blender.
Get the bad cholesterol down
“High levels of LDL (bad cholesterol; greater than 200mg/dl) in blood can cause deposition of cholesterol in blood vessels, leading to narrowing and hardening of the arteries, thus upping the heart attack risk,” explains S.K. Gupta, senior consultant, cardiology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi.
“Oats are at the top of the list of cholesterol busters. The soluble fibre in it reduces the absorption of cholesterol in your bloodstream and helps throw it right out of your system,” says Sandhya Pandey, chief dietitian, nutrition and dietetics department, Columbia Asia, Gurgaon. So stir up some oatmeal and begin whisking bad cholesterol out of your system.
Quick recipe: To make oats upma, add 1 cup of water to 2 tbsp of oats, add 1 chopped chilli, 1 chopped onion, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 tbsp grated carrots and 1 tbsp frozen or fresh peas. Microwave at high temperature (510 degrees Celsius) for 4-5 minutes. Stir in a spoonful of plain yogurt, season to taste, and add a few sprigs of dhania (coriander leaves).
Get the good cholesterol up
“HDL (good cholesterol), which carries cholesterol from cells of the body and arteries back to the liver, removes extra cholesterol and helps slow down the progression of coronary heart disease (CHD). Which is why low HDL (less than 40 mg/dl) may actually increase the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke,” explains Dr Gupta.
Aparna Jaswal, senior consultant, cardiac pacing and electrophysiology, Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, New Delhi, says: “It has been proven that red wine helps to increase HDL in the blood. A glass is all you need to complement the food. The key is moderation—just one or two glasses every day.” A study by researchers from the Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, published in the July 2010 issue of ‘The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition’, noted that daily red wine consumption for 21 consecutive days significantly improved the health of cells lining the blood vessels, which then improved blood flow and heart health.
Keep blood pressure in control
“Uncontrolled high blood pressure can result in the hardening and thickening of arteries (atherosclerosis), which can lead to a heart attack and even make the heart abnormally large and less efficient, eventually leading to heart failure,” explains Dr Sharma.
Chocolate isn’t good just for romance. The results of a study, ‘Chocolate Consumption And Cardiometabolic Disorders: Systematic Review And Meta-Analysis’, by researchers of the University of Cambridge, showed that people who ate the most chocolate had a 37% lower risk of heart disease. “Dark chocolates are filled with antioxidants which keep the heart healthy and help protect against high blood pressure. So they are good in moderation,” explains Dr Jaswal. The findings were presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2011 and published online in August 2011 in the ‘British Medical Journal’.
Keep inflammation, plaque and blood clots away
“Inflammation is a build-up of fatty, cholesterol-rich plaque in blood vessels and this has been noticed as a big event towards a heart attack build-up, as over time plaque hardens and narrows the arteries. As the body perceives plaque as abnormal and foreign when it comes in contact with blood, it may trigger a blood-clot formation and block the passage of blood and oxygen. This combination of plaque and blood clots cause the majority of heart attacks,” explains Dr Gupta.
“Salmon is super healthy because it contains high protein, high omega-3 fatty acids, and high vitamin D content. It is excellent for the heart’s health as the good fats in it keep the body’s lipid levels healthy,” explains Karuna Chaturvedi, chief dietitian, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi. “But the bigger benefit is that the omega-3 in it keeps inflammation in check, thus keeping heart attacks at bay,” she adds.
Quick recipe: Place salmon in a foil pouch. Add a sprinkle of any herbs like dill, paprika, oregano or rosemary, a dash of pepper and a touch of white wine. Bake at 220 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes.
“Garlic contains sulphide compounds which not just reduce cholesterol, but also prevent and remove clots. It also helps clear out clogged arteries because it widens blood vessels and encourages good circulation,” explains Dr Chaturvedi. “How much garlic does the trick? Just a clove a day is good enough,” she says.
Quick recipe: Marinate pressed garlic in olive oil and use this flavoured oil in dressings. Purée fresh garlic, beans, olive oil and lemon juice to make a quick and easy dip. Or simply pop one pod every morning.
Olive oil can almost halve the risk of getting heart disease, concludes the study, ‘Olive Oil Intake And Mortality Within the Spanish Population’, published in July in ‘The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition’. According to the study, olive oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and polyphenols, compounds that can dampen inflammation in the body and possibly reduce the risk of clots.
The researchers recruited a total of 40,622 participants aged 29–69 from five Spanish regions in 1992–96 and analysed the association between olive oil and overall and cause-specific mortality (cardiovascular disease or CVD, cancer, and other causes). They found a 44% reduction in CVD mortality. For each increase in olive oil consumption of 10g , there was a 7% decreased risk of overall mortality and a 13% decreased risk of CVD mortality. They suggested 2 tbsp a day of olive oil to halve (decrease by 44%) the risk of dying from cardiac problems.
Quick recipe: Toss some olive oil into fresh greens, or drizzle it over warm pasta tonight. It is great over roasted potatoes too.
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