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Here’s a statistic that could make your heart skip a beat: the World Health Organization estimates that cardiovascular disease causes approximately 17.5 million deaths per year worldwide. That’s the bad news. The good news is that simply exercising regularly, maintaining a healthful weight, and eating smart can prevent 80 percent of cardiovascular disease. “Whether or not you get heart disease is dramatically influenced by the food choices you make,” says Ann G. Kulze, MD, author of Dr. Ann’s 10 Step Diet.
The fact is, the more plant-based foods and the fewer animal products you eat, the better. “Vegetarians have a much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than meat eaters,” Kulze explains. In addition to ruling out many of the saturated animal fats that raise cholesterol levels and clog arteries, a well-balanced vegetarian diet pumps your body full of the heart-healthy nutrients found in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and other good-for-you foods. Here we have identified foods rich in substances that promote heart health, and provided easy recipes that’ll make you yearn for them.
Blood Pressure-Reducing Potassium
“High blood pressure is perhaps the single greatest contributor to the development of heart disease,” says Kulze. Scientists agree that a diet rich in the essential mineral potassium is associated with lower blood pressure levels. Potassium lowers blood pressure by countering the effects of excess sodium. It also aids in the transmission of nerve impulses and promotes muscle function, both of which are vital for optimal heart and blood vessel performance, explains Kulze.
To get potassium, eat these: potatoes; bananas; tomatoes; dark leafy greens; prunes; soybeans; lima beans; pumpkin seeds; avocado; almonds.
Homocysteine-Busting B Vitamins (folate, B6)
Elevated levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood, are associated with risk of coronary artery disease and stroke. Folate and B6 work in concert to metabolize or break down homocysteine. Harvard’s famous Nurses’ Health Study showed a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in women who regularly used multivitamins (a major source of folic acid and vitamin B6 ) and also in those with high dietary intake of B6 and folic acid. In another study, reported in the journal Circulation, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio found a link between low blood levels of B6 and folic acid and an increased risk of arteriosclerosis.
To get B vitamins, eat these: fortified breakfast cereals; spinach; broccoli; asparagus; potatoes; bananas; sunflower seeds
Thanks to their fat solubility and potent antioxidant properties, carotenoids (plant chemicals that give fruits and veggies their red, yellow, and orange hues) are a major force in the fight against heart disease. Evidence suggests they interact with ‘bad” LDL cholesterol, preventing it from oxidizing and sticking to artery walls. According to a study published in 2004 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women with higher levels of carotenoids in their blood had a 34 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
To get carotenoids, eat these: watermelon; kale; carrots; sweet potatoes; red bell peppers
Cholesterol-Sloughing Soluble Fiber
According to a 19-year survey that examined the effects of fiber intake on heart attacks in about 10,000 adults, those who ingested the most soluble fiber had a 12 percent reduction in coronary heart disease events. Soluble fiber combines with water in the gastrointestinal tract to form a gelatinous mass that ‘sponges up’ cholesterol, diminishing its absorption and escorting it out of the body, Kulze explains. “It also slows down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrate foods, giving rise to lower and more stable blood glucose and insulin levels, which have favorable effects on metabolism and arterial health,” she adds.
To get soluble fiber, eat these: whole grains, such as oats and barley; beans; okra; Brussels sprouts
Clot-Fighting Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Research continues to confirm that omega-3 fatty acids, a class of polyunsaturated fats, play a key role in heart health. “Omega-3s give rise to anti-inflammatory molecules known as resolvins and protectins, both of which ward off blood clots that can trigger stroke and heart attack,” explains organic chemist Shane Ellison, author of The Hidden Truth About Cholesterol Lowering Drugs. Furthermore, in a 2005 Brazilian report that reviewed 159 studies of the effects of omega-3 fatty acids, soluble fibers, and phytosterols on heart health, scientists established that omega-3 fatty acids lower triglyceride levels (high levels are a risk factor for heart disease). Researchers also found that omega-3s increase “good” HDL cholesterol, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and author of The Flexitarian Diet.
To get omega-3 fatty acids, eat these: flaxseed; flax oil; walnuts; soy; canola oil; small dark leafy greens such as watercress, arugula, purslane
Both oxidation and inflammation are involved in the development of cardiovascular disease. “But thanks to their potent antioxidative and anti-inflammatory activity, flavonoids pack a powerful one-two punch against heart disease,” says Kulze. In particular, this large class of plant chemicals keeps the lining of the arteries (endothelial cells) flexible, which improves blood flow and reduces blood clotting. In a 2001 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, researchers reported that a 7.5-milligram increase in intake of catechins (the flavonoid compounds found in tea and cocoa) resulted in a 20 percent reduction in heart disease mortality risk.
To get flavonoids, eat these: cocoa; dark chocolate; green tea; red wine; extra virgin olive oil; pomegranates; apples