If you’re one of the 13 million Americans who have survived a heart attack or have been diagnosed with heart disease, then take heart! You can take control of your heart health with the knowledge that certain foods have been shown to quell inflammation, which is the root cause of plaque build-up in the arteries. What’s the food prescription? Science has proven that a Mediterranean eating style, which focuses on our top nine artery-healing foods, can reduce the risk of a second heart attack by up to 70 percent.
- Extra virgin olive oil. Extracted from olives by crushing the whole fruit, olive oil is a golden elixir brimming with potent inflammation-suppressing antioxidants called polyphenols, as well as monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), the heart-healing kind of fat. The high MUFA content of olive oil is cardio-protective—it cuts your “bad” LDL cholesterol level, helps stabilize vulnerable plaque by preventing LDL from be-coming oxidized (when LDL reacts with free radicals to promote inflammation) and bumps up your level of “good” HDL cholesterol. Make this your main fat in marinades, sauces, dressings, and cooking. (See Make Olive Oil Your Number One Oil on page 7.)
Primary disease-fighting compounds in olive oil: monounsaturated fatty acid: oleic acid • polyphenols: hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, oleuropein • vitamin E
- Greens and other vegetables. Dark green and leafy; Red, ripe and juicy; bright orange and crunchy—this rainbow of colors is from Mother Nature’s medicine chest of foods that keep your arteries clean and healthy. Spinach, for example, is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on earth—so nix the iceberg and make this veggie your salad green of choice. Red-purple vegetables such as radicchio, red beets and eggplant contain pigments that protect the heart by increasing production of a natural antioxidant called glutathione. Eat like an artist and try to consume at least five colorful veggies every day.
Primary disease-fighting compounds in greens and other vegetables: polyphenols: flavonoids, especially flavonols (quercetin) and anthocyanins • carotenoids: lutein and zeaxanthin • organosulfur com-pounds: indoles • antioxidant vitamins: vitamins C and E and beta-carotene
- Salmon and other seafood. Fatty fish that swim in the cold waters of the sea—such as salmon, halibut and sardines—contain ultra-heart-healthy omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA. Fish oil
stabilizes plaque, reduces risk of sudden death, lowers triglyceride level, and reduces inflammation. Fish oil also revs up the body’s ability to dissolve blood clots, the kind that seal off plaque-filled arteries. Aim for at least two fish meals per week.
Primary disease-fighting compounds in fatty fish: marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentae-noic acid (EPA) and decosahexaenoic acid (DHA) • vitamin D
- Figs and other fruits. Figs and other fruits are rich in fiber, vitamins and potassium, and contain an array of plaque-fighting polyphenols. Substitute pureed fruit for fat in baking, sprinkle dried fruit on salads, add fresh fruit to smoothies, and try baked fruit for a delicious desert. Aim for at least three servings every day.
Primary disease-fighting compounds in figs and other fruits: polyphenol antioxidant flavonoids: fla-vonols (quercetin), anthocyanins (malvidin), flavan-3-ols (epicatechin), and flavanones (naringenin) • vita-mins: C and E • minerals: potassium • carotenoids: lycopene, lutein, and beta-carotene • fiber: soluble and insoluble
- Walnuts and flaxseeds. Yes, walnuts and flaxseeds are high in fat but it’s the good fat: the vegetarian omega-3 fat called alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Walnuts are also high in vitamin E (an antioxidant that helps keep cholesterol from building up in plaque), and fiber. Add walnuts to fat-free Greek yogurt, salads, and baked goods. Add ground flaxseeds to oatmeal, pancakes and baked goods.
Primary disease-fighting compounds in walnuts and flaxseeds: plant-derived omega-3 fatty acid: al-pha-linolenic acid (ALA) • nonflavonoid polyphenol antioxidants: ellagic acid and gallic acid • arginine • vitamin E
- Oatmeal and other whole grains. Oats are a nutritious whole grain filled with beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that soaks up cholesterol and pushes it through the digestive system so that it’s not absorbed by the body. Oats also contain a unique antioxidant that counteracts the destructive and atherosclerosis-inducing damage of unstable free radicals. Aim for at least three servings of whole grains each day.
Primary disease-fighting compounds in whole grains: polyphenol antioxidants: avenanthramides (oats) • polyphenol phenolic acids: ferulic acid and caffeic acid • fiber: soluble (beta-glucan) and insoluble • antioxidant vitamin E • antioxidant mineral selenium
- Lentils and other legumes. A versatile low-fat plant protein, legumes (beans, peas and lentils) are full of heart-healthy vitamins and minerals and are one of the best sources of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber. In ad-dition, lentils are loaded with antioxidants, protein, vitamins and minerals, especially iron—and all this for pennies on the dollar. Soybeans, a near-perfect protein choice instead of animal protein, exhibits strong anti-oxidant capacity that can help decrease artery inflammation. To get your daily dose of legumes, substitute soymilk for cow’s milk; eat legume-based soups or chili; toss lentils into pasta sauce; try hummus as a dip; or sprinkle kidney beans on your salad.
Primary disease-fighting compounds in legumes: protein • polyphenol antioxidants: flavonoids (quercetin, anthocyanins) isoflavones (genistein and daidzein), phenolic acids (ferulic acid), and lignans • fiber: soluble and insoluble
- Red wine. The deep garnet color is a clue that this “drink of the ages” is loaded with flavonoids, as well as the vital antioxidant resveratrol. However, moderation is the magic word, which means one 5-ounce glass of wine a day for women and two for men.
Primary disease-fighting compounds in red wine: ethanol (alcohol) • polyphenol antioxidant flavo-noids: flavan-3-ols (procyanidins), flavonols (quercetin), and anthocyanins (malvidin) • phenolic acids: gallic acid and caffeic acid • stilbene polyphenol: resveratrol
- Dark chocolate and green tea. Dark chocolate is packed with heart-healthy nutrients and has been shown to lower inflammation in the arteries, as well as reduce blood pressure. Try a nightly cup of rich hot choco-late—made with 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder, soymilk and a touch of sweetener. Or en-joy a small amount of dark chocolate (an ounce) every day washed down with green tea, also rich in polyphenols.
Primary disease-fighting compounds in dark chocolate and green tea: cocoa polyphenol flavonoids, especially the flavanols: catechins, epicatechins, and procyanidins • green tea polyphenol flavonoids, especially the flavanols: epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), epigallocatechin, epicatechin gallate, and epicatechin
—Janet Bond Brill, PhD, RDN, FAND