Heart Healthy Foods
by Michelle Waithe, BaSC, R.H.N.
The heart is the powerhouse of the cardiovascular system which is an intricate system of blood vessels that allows nutrients to get where they need to go and transports harmful substances out of the body. Unfortunately, if you are putting harmful substances into your body the cardiovascular system becomes a transport system for toxins and gets damaged itself along the way. Incorporating a few delicious heart healthy foods and making some simple lifestyle changes can ensure you have a healthy, strong heart for life.
Let’s start by looking at what causes damage to the cardiovascular system. Symptoms such as elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, and elevated triglycerides (fats in the blood) indicate that the cardiovascular system is in danger, eventually leading to the failure of the system’s most precious component, the heart. But what causes these symptoms to occur? When you look at the body as an intricate and intelligent machine you realize that it is not as simple as picking apart these symptoms and treating them individually. From a holistic perspective when the body creates symptoms such as these it is usually a defense mechanism to let us know that damage is being done at a deeper level.
Let’s take cholesterol as an example. Cholesterol itself is not the problem. The problem is that there is damage to the interior walls of the arteries which causes the body to build up plaque to use as patch work material needed to repair damage, of which cholesterol is a component. The more damage there is to these interior walls the more cholesterol and plaque the body will produce.
The real causative factor lies in what is damaging these arterial walls in the first place. There are a few main culprits. Excess sugar circulating in the blood will bind to proteins in the body in a process called glycation which can damage surrounding delicate tissues such as blood vessels. Consuming processed and refined fats, especially trans-fats, will also cause damage to the blood vessels, as will inflammation in the body stemming from a variety of factors. Poor digestion resulting in limited access to any beneficial nutrients coming in, toxic overload, lack of movement, and stress are the other accessory factors in cardiovascular disease. These are the triggers we need to target and eliminate when looking at a heart healthy diet.
Create a whole foods based diet with heart healthy foods that have these characteristics in common:
- Nutrient Dense – meaning they are packed with vitamin and minerals that will provide the raw materials necessary for all bodily functions and to build a healthy strong system.
- Fibre – helps to lower cholesterol and sweep the toxins out of the body.
- Antioxidants – helps protect the body from damage due to consuming processed and refined foods and toxins in our environment, protects the arteries from the oxidation of cholesterol.
- Healthy Fats – needed to maintain the integrity of every cell in the body and maintain elasticity in the blood vessels.
Where to get your vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre, and even healthy fats in one powerhouse package?
One of the easiest ways to check off the items on this list is to fill your diet with healthy plant based foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, moderate amounts of whole grains, and raw nuts and seeds. Plant based foods in their whole form can all be considered part of a diet rich in heart healthy foods. They contain a variety of vitamins and minerals, tons of fibre, pack a punch with antioxidants, and many contain a good dose of healthy fats. Eat lots vegetables and moderate amounts of fruits, in particular colourful ones. Think of filling your cart with foods from the produce aisle that represent each color of the rainbow. A diet rich in Natural Alive Good quality foods will ensure that you are getting full benefit from your diet.
Including any plant based whole food into your diet will be of benefit, but in particular a few stand out when it comes to targeting unique heart healthy components. Here are a few of nature’s perfect heart healthy foods:
- Pomegranates – contain specific antioxidants (anthocyanins) and polyphenols that prevent hardening of the arteries.
- Beets – high in antioxidants, can help to lower blood pressure.
- Berries – excellent source of antioxidants and fibre.
- Dark leafy greens – great source of fibre, chlorophyll, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals.
- Tomatoes (or any red or orange fruits and vegetables) – contains the powerful antioxidants lutein and lycopene that help support the entire cardiovascular system.
- Avocados – great source of healthy fats.
- Chia and Flax – great source of healthy fats, fibre, and minerals.
- Magnesium Rich Foods (cacao, raw nuts and seeds) – helps to relax the blood vessels and lower blood pressure.
- Foods High in Vitamin C (camu, red peppers, berries, citrus, broccoli) – a powerful antioxidant, essential to help maintain elasticity of the blood vessels and helps remove plaque from the body.
What Not to Eat
I always start off by discussing all the goodness you can add into the diet before blacklisting the major offenders. This helps set up a positive mind set when making dietary and lifestyle changes, crowd out the bad with the good. When it comes to damaging the heart, refined white and processed sugars, highly refined carbohydrates such as white flour that quickly turn into sugar in the body, and unhealthy processed and trans-fats are the big enemies. A simple way to reduce and eventually eradicate these from your diet is to avoid packaged and processed foods. Even so-called health foods when highly refined and processed can contain some of these unhealthy ingredients.
Even the healthiest diet cannot make up for a lifestyle that is not conducive to a strong heart. Tune up your lifestyle with these strategies.
Move It or Lose It!
The cardiovascular system is meant to pump blood and nutrients all over the body. Its powerhouse energy generator is the heart which is a muscle. What happens when you don’t work your muscles? Simply put, they get weak. If you don’t train and work your muscles regularly they are unable to perform the way you need them to. Think of the last time you engaged in rigorous exercise. Most likely you were pretty sore the next day because you were forcing your muscles to do activity that it is not typically used to doing. The same is true of the heart. If you don’t work the heart muscle regularly by moving your body it becomes weak. When you need it to pump harder to get blood through blood vessels that are narrowed due to plaque build-up it gets sore and tired. To keep the heart muscle strong it really is as simple as just moving more everyday to start. Pick up the pace when you are walking, park a little further from your destination, take the stairs, or my personal favorite put on some really great music and just dance. Just move more than you are moving now.
Don’t Worry be Happy!
Stress has many detrimental effects on the body but almost immediate effects can be felt radiating through the cardiovascular system when stress levels rise. The analogy often used to denote stress “my blood is boiling”, or “I can feel my blood pressure rising”, literally describes the body’s immediate response to stress. The heart starts racing, blood pressure really does increase, and muscles tense up which all puts a huge strain on the heart. We can talk for days about ways to reduce stress but one of the easiest I have found that anyone can do anytime, anywhere is to stop and take a deep breath. When in the midst of a stressful situation this can immediately stop stress in its tracks from fully taxing the heart and cardiovascular system. Doing more things you love is another one of my favourite ways to reduce overall stress.
If after reading this you feel that there is definite room for improvement in your not-so-heart healthy lifestyle begin by looking at where your diet is lacking and change one thing at a time, this will enable you to make more lasting changes. Simply add a few of the heart healthy foods we have discussed here and start to crowd out the not-so-healthy choices. Don’t forget to take care of your entire body not just the diet. Move a little more and take some time to relax. Give some love to your heart, keep it healthy and strong.
Gifford Jones, MD. (February 21 2015). Magnesium: Protection from Undertakers. Retrieved from
Gifford Jones, MD. (September 27 2014). What’s Red and Protects Cardiovascular Health? Retrieved from www.docgiff.com.
Gifford Jones, MD. (October 20 2012). Medi-C Plus – Vitamin C and Lysine Powder Help Prevent Heart Attack. Retrieved from www.docgiff.com.
Klein ND, Elie. (2013) Read This if You Have a Heart: The book on lowering high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar naturally. Canada: 10-10-10 Publishing.
Andrew Weil, MD. Atherosclerosis. Retrieved from www.drweil.com.
Voutilainen S, Nurmi T, Mursu J, Rissanen TH. Carotenoids and cardiovascular health. Am J Clin Nutr June 2006 vol. 83 no. 6 1265-127.