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Heart Healthy Nutrition

Did you know that up to 80% of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented through your life habits, such as eating a healthy diet and being physically active?

What we eat has a profound effect on the health of our hearts. Several dietary strategies have been shown to support heart health, including:

  • Eating a predominantly whole food plant-based diet. As recommended in the latest Health Canada Food Guide, a diet made up of mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy whole grains, with limited intake of animal-derived foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, can help support all-round good health. Aim for half your plate to be fruits and vegetables, a quarter to feature sources of plant protein (see below), and the other quarter to comprise whole grains such as quinoa, rice, buckwheat, or whole wheat pasta.

  • Minimize meat and dairy. Animal-derived foods lack fibre and other key nutrients and may be high in saturated fat as well as trans fats, and cholesterol. Avoid processed meats such as hotdogs, sausage, and deli meats that are associated with an increased risk of serious health issues. Healthier choices of protein include beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh. And, don’t forget, there’s also protein in nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits and vegetables!

  • Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. Whether you’re partial to pears, or besotted with broccoli, fresh, frozen, or canned fruits and veggies (without added sugar or syrup!) provide key antioxidant and bioflavonoid nutrients that help protect the heart and blood vessels. Aim to eat 7-10 servings per day to support good health; one serving is half a cup [6].

  • Focus on fibre. A high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains also boosts your fibre intake. This helps to maintain healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels already within the normal range in addition to supporting digestive health. Healthy adults should aim to get 21–38 grams of fibre per day.

  • Make water your drink of choice. Water is the best beverage choice for good health. Period. Soda, alcohol, and fruit juices add extra calories we often don’t need and often don’t realize we’re consuming. The sugar in these drinks can also damage tooth and gum health, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Drinking water regularly throughout the day can help you stay hydrated and supports appetite management, without any extra calories or sugar! Aim for 6-8 glasses of water per day.

  • Protein. Protein helps to keep our muscles strong, important for maintaining the balance and mobility needed to continue to live independently as we age. Yet, unlike with fruits and veggies, we may not focus on getting enough of this important nutrient. And recommendations on exactly how much protein older adults need vary. The current recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight a day for adults over 18, or about 2.3 ounces for a 180-pound adult. In our older years, we are at risk of sarcopenia, which is the loss of muscle mass, strength and function. People with sarcopenia may need 1.2 to 1.5 g/kg of protein a day, according to the Mayo Clinic; that's 3.5 to 4.3 ounces for a 180-pound adult.

Heart healthy foods

A heart-healthy diet is low in cholesterol and saturated fat, rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and limits salty or sugary snack foods. Healthy eating is one of the best choices you can make to care for your heart and can help control many of the challenges that impact heart health. Some key points to keep in mind as we explore the health healthy foods:

  • Vegetables. Brightly coloured vegetables such as sweet potatoes, peppers, radish, kale, and eggplant are packed with antioxidant carotenoids, as well as fibre, and other vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients – and they’re delicious! Eat the rainbow and get your 3-5 portions a day by making a delicious veggie and tempeh stir-fry, a roasted veggie salad with chickpeas and quinoa, or a greens smoothie! A 1/2 cup is one serving. Aim for minimum 3-5 per day.

  • Fruits. Berries, bananas, oranges, apples, papaya, and cantaloupe all provide soluble fibre and phytonutrients, including antioxidants, as well as minerals such as potassium and magnesium to support heart health. Stay away from juicing fruits and enjoy them ray in a fruit salad, blend in a healthy breakfast smoothie, or enjoy in a yummy sorbet. A 1/2 cup is one serving. As many fruits are high in sugars, aim for max 3-5 per day.

  • Nuts and Seeds. Walnuts, almonds, and other nuts, as well as flaxseeds, chia, and hemp seeds provide healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, fibre, and phytonutrients that support heart health. If Try to snack on unsalted and raw nuts and seeds between meals, add them to oatmeal and cereal, make a nut paella, and sprinkle them on salads to get your daily servings! Remember that 1/4 cup is one serving. Aim for max 2-3 per day.

  • Whole grains. Oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, millet and other whole grains are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates including soluble and insoluble fibre, and provide protein, vitamins, and minerals. Cook whole grains from scratch to avoid added sodium and sugar. Enjoy a variety of whole grains by whipping up a quinoa pilaf, overnight oats, brown rice and Thai green curry, or a lunchtime beans and veggie wrap. A 1/2 cup of cooked grains is one serving.

  • Legumes. Beans, lentils, and peas are fantastic sources of lean protein, fibre, and a variety of minerals and vitamins, including B vitamins! You can aim to have a quarter of your plate made up of these plant-based protein sources by including refried black and pinto beans, marinated tempeh, peanut butter baked tofu, lentil dhal, or minted peas. A 3/4 cup is one serving. Aim for 2-3 per day.

Additional heart helpers

Consider including the following in your diet for a little extra support for heart health:

  • Dark chocolate. A source of antioxidants! Choose dark chocolate (70% cocoa at least) to avoid excess sugar.

  • Garlic. Contains compounds that help reduce elevated blood lipid levels.

  • Sunflower seeds. A great source of antioxidant vitamin E which supports heart health by protecting against cholesterol oxidation, as well as magnesium, which helps maintain proper muscle function.

  • Dark leafy greens. A source of vitamin K, B vitamins, and antioxidants to support heart health! Eat spinach, kale, Swiss chard, arugula, collard greens and other veggies to support your cardiovascular system.

  • Cold-water fish. Salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and trout are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which support cardiovascular health.

Best supplements for heart health

Eating well, engaging in regular physical activity, and managing stress create a solid foundation of support for cardiovascular health. Adding supplements, never meant to replace the healthy diets, few natural health ones have been found to support heart health by maintaining antioxidant status, blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol. As with all the supplements, please do consult with a health practitioner (as well as a pharmacists re: adverse effects) prior to use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you are taking any prescription medication.

  • Omega-3. Consuming eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids supports cardiovascular health and helps reduce serum triglycerides. The most protective effects of omega-3 fatty acids for the heart are provided by marine sources such as fish or krill, which provide EPA and DHA. Krill oil contains phospholipid-bound omega-3 fatty acid for more efficient absorption and bioavailability of EPA and DHA, while providing natural sources of important antioxidants such as astaxanthin.

  • Coenzyme Q10. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a fat-soluble molecule that is important for cellular energy and heart health. This coenzyme is produced via the same pathway as cholesterol and, when we are young, our bodies are generally able to keep up with demand. As we age, however, CoQ10 production is less efficient and our blood levels begin to decline [12]. Older adults are also more likely to be prescribed statins and beta blockers to inhibit cholesterol production. Unfortunately, these medications also reduce CoQ10 production. In supplement form, CoQ10 is best provided as ubiquinol, the active form of the nutrient as produced by the body itself. Ubiquinol is better absorbed and can produce higher concentrations of CoQ10 in the blood than regular CoQ10 (ubiquinone). This makes it especially helpful for seniors or anyone looking to support and maintain cardiovascular health.

  • Plant Sterols. Also called phytosterols, plant sterols are cholesterol-like compounds are found in plant cell membranes in vegetables, fruits, and grains, in very small quantities in plant-based foods, but not at a level that can provide a substantial nutritional benefit. Research has shown that plant sterols help block the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestine, helping to lower blood total and LDL cholesterol, and reduce triglycerides levels. An intake of 2 g of phytosterols per day with meals, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, is associated with an 8–10% decrease in LDL cholesterol.

  • Magnesium. Magnesium is an important mineral and electrolyte. It is a factor in the maintenance of good health and is needed to maintain proper muscle function, including the strength of heart muscle contractions.

  • Vitamins B6, B12, and Folate. B vitamins are essential for energy metabolism and a range of other physiological functions, including the metabolism of homocysteine into methionine or cystathionine. Homocysteine is a sulphur amino acid that when blood levels are elevated, has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Eating a diet high in vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid or folate, or meeting daily recommendations with the help of a B-vitamin supplement can help support normal homocysteine metabolism and heart health.

  • Resveratrol. Resveratrol first gained attention in the early 1990s when researchers uncovered the antioxidant compound while investigating the so-called “French paradox” whereby people living in France had healthy hearts despite eating diets high in saturated fats. A type of polyphenol antioxidant found naturally in a variety of foods that also feature in traditional diets in France, such as red wine, red grape skins, purple grape juice, berries, peanuts, dark chocolate, and tea, this naturally occurring antioxidant is helpful for the maintenance of good health.

  • Vitamin E. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that helps protect cell membranes against damage caused by free radicals. The function of vitamin E is to help with structural and functional maintenance of skeletal, cardiac, and smooth muscle. It also assists in the formation of red blood cells and helps maintain stores of vitamins A and K, iron, and selenium in the body.

Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended for self-diagnosis or self-treatment of conditions that should be interpreted and managed by a qualified health care provider.

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