How To Eat For Optimal Heart Health

How To Eat For Optimal Heart Health

It's February which means it is National Heart Health Month! Today’s focus is on what foods can improve overall cardiovascular health. Cardiovascular disease is primarily an inflammatory disease that is caused by poor dietary choices, lack of exercise and metabolic issues that can lead to diabetes and obesity.  Inflammation is fueled by high blood sugar levels and high consumption of triglycerides from high-glycemic carbohydrates. These practices raise the ‘LDL’ or bad cholesterol in the body which leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.


The foods we choose to eat everyday are important to strengthen the heart and provide overall cardiovascular support. Research shows that the foods we consume can help to lower and manage blood pressure and cholesterol.  The recommended diet for cardiovascular prevention and treatment is an anti-inflammatory whole foods diet that are mainly plant-based. It is best to limit processed foods and limit sugar and sweets as these foods can raise blood sugar levels which causes inflammation and thus increases cardiovascular risk factors. Vitamins B, C, E and minerals like zinc, calcium and magnesium have shown to have positive effects on the cardiovascular system and they are found in the plant-based foods you eat everyday!


Why is Plant-Based Good For Your Heart?

Plant-based diets which are defined as low frequency consumption of animal foods is highly recommended for heart health. Many studies have found that plant-based diets with lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains can lower the risk of cardiovascular outcomes. Plant-based foods are low in saturated fats and high in unsaturated fats which helps to improve the ratio of bad to good cholesterol in the body. Plant based foods are also high in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, potassium and Magnesium. All of these nutrients have been shown to lower blood pressure and lower the risk of strokes.

Foods For Heart Health

* A Note on Food Labels

First and foremost, it is very, very important to read labels on all food products. Check the daily value which is found on the right side of ingredient labels. Aim for foods with less saturated fats, trans fats and sodium, which would mean 5% of the daily value or less. Choose foods that are high in fiber, vitamins, calcium and iron which equals > 15% daily value per serving.

Aim for 0 trans fat
Aim for low sodium (<15% of the daily value)
Aim for at least 2 grams of fiber per serving
Aim for foods that have Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron


 Vegetables For Heart Health

Regularly eating 4-5 servings of vegetables a day has been linked to lowering the risk of high blood pressure. They are filled with lots of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A diet that is full of vegetables can also help to protect against Type II diabetes and some cancers.

How do you know what one serving of vegetables looks like?

1 serving is equal to:
½ cup of cooked vegetables 
1 cup of raw vegetables 
½ cup of beans, or lentils
½ of a potato, sweet potato or other starchy vegetables

How can you eat more veggies on an everyday basis?

Aim for a meat-free meal 1-2 x a week and just replace the meat with legumes
Always make sure to add an extra serving of vegetables or a salad at each meal
Choose vegetables that are in season so they are fresh and cheaper!
 2 Vegetables that I want to highlight that specifically lower blood pressure are spinach and beets! These are high in iron, potassium, magnesium and fiber!


Fruits for Heart Health

Obviously a vegetable’s partner is always fruit! Aim for 4 servings of fruits a day.

1 serving of fruit is equal to:
1 medium fruit (size of your fist) ex.  apple, banana, orange or pear
½ of an avocado
4 strawberries
2 small pieces of plums, nectarines or kiwi


How can you eat more fruits on an everyday basis?

Always add chopped fruit to your morning oats, eggs or smoothies
If you are craving something sweet instead of reaching for that chocolate, reach for that fruit!
Always keep the fruit bowl at home full

Two fruits I want to highlight are blueberries and avocados! They are full of antioxidants which can help to improve high blood pressure. Avocados contain lots of healthy fat that can help to lower cholesterol and improve overall heart function. Vegetables and fruits should be the primary carbohydrate source in the body to really improve cardiovascular health.


Whole Grains for Heart Health

Regular consumption of whole grains is linked to healthier hearts and also lowers high blood pressure. Whole grains appears to improve blood glucose levels, blood cholesterol levels and increases intake of minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Fiber avoids sugar spikes and helps with satiety. Always choose the whole grain versions of your food choices.

Grains refers to wheat, corn, rice, barley, oats, rye, millet, quinoa, teff and other foods. These grains can be eaten whole, processed into products like couscous (wheat) or used to make grain foods like bread, cereals, pasta and noodles. Whole grains are whole - with the grain or flour containing the three parts of the grain - endosperm, germ and brain.

How can you eat more whole grains  on an everyday basis?

Eat whole grains or a high fiber breakfast with things like rolled oats. Swap white bread for whole grain and always look for ‘wholegrain’ on the label.

I want to highlight oats! A diet containing soluble fiber-rich whole oats can reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure while also lowering cholesterol.


Omega 3-Fatty Acids For Heart Health

Omega-3 Fatty Acids lower triglyceride levels, raises HDL (good cholesterol), lowers resting blood pressure and reduces inflammatory markers in the body.

Many studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce cardiovascular disease and outcomes. There are plant derived omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) or fish derived Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA). Both need to be part of a healthy heart diet. Aim for about 2 grams of both EPA and DHA as either fatty fish or through supplement form. Aim for 1-3 grams/day of ALA either through plant based foods, like flax seeds or supplement form.

It is recommended to eat fish (Tuna, sardines, salmon) 2x a week for EPA and DHA. Foods high in ALA include walnuts, flaxseeds.

I would like to highlight flax seeds which can reduce total cholesterol, improve blood sugar levels and reduce inflammation. Aim for daily consumption of 15-50 grams of flax seeds.


How Green Tea Helps Heart Health

Green Tea is known as a superfood, mostly for its epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) content. EGCG is a polyphenol which has huge heart protective benefits through reducing LDL cholesterol and increasing antioxidants which can lower whole body inflammation.

Brewed tea contains the highest concentration of EGCG and the concentration increases with brewing time. To maximize EGCG content, pour boiling water over a green  tea bag and let it steep for 10 minutes before removing the bag and drinking. It is also best to drink green tea away from food. Also, keep in mind that green tea has about 35-70 mg of caffeine per 8 oz cup vs. coffee which has 150-200 mg of caffeine.

Aim for 5 cups of green tea a day.

Try this Heart healthy smoothie incorporating some of the foods I talked about!

1.5 cup mixed berries (frozen or fresh)
½ banana 
1 cup almond milk
1 tbsp flax seeds
1 tbsp of cocoa nibs
Handful of spinach
1 cup of ice


Overall, diet and lifestyle modifications are building blocks to prevent heart disease. Stay active and consume as many of the super foods mentioned above for your heart. Keep the salt low, exercise high and make sure to consume your antioxidants, omega-3’s and fiber to reduce your blood pressure, cholesterol and ultimately reduce your risk of heart disease!


Blog Written By: Dr. Saira Kassam | 2018

* Disclaimer: The advice in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace the care of a Naturopathic physician.*


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