10 heart-friendly foods for cardiovascular health
While medications and lifestyle changes can improve cardiovascular health, what we put on your plate also makes a difference. From collard greens to chia seeds, here are the best foods that you (as a nutrition professional) can add to your clients’ diet for optimal heart health benefits.
Heart health is an ever-increasing topic, and for good reason, since cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly one-third of all deaths worldwide . Whether it’s genetics, poor lifestyle choices, or a lack of physical activity, there are many factors which contribute to this sobering statistic.
But what can you, as a dietitian or nutritionist, do to help your clients improve their heart health?
When it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease, look no further than what you put on your plate. Diet plays a major role in heart health, as certain foods have a direct impact on blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol levels and inflammation. These are all risk factors for heart disease, so making improvements to your clients’ diet can be an effective strategy in your nutritional care plan.
Before sharing the best foods to increase cardiovascular health, let’s start by examining what cholesterol is and how to interpret your clients’ results.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance in the blood that is used to create new cells, hormones, and vitamin D . While cholesterol serves many important functions in the body, high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. There are two types of cholesterol—LDL and HDL—which are measured with triglycerides to calculate total cholesterol and help determine cardiovascular health.
LDL (low density lipoprotein) is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol, as it accumulates in the blood vessels. If your client has elevated LDL, it should be closely monitored as this increases their risk of heart disease, stroke, and atherosclerosis . Conversely, HDL (high density lipoprotein) is considered “good” cholesterol because it picks up cholesterol and returns it to the liver for excretion . Thus, having high HDL levels is considered to be cardioprotective.
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Interpreting cholesterol results
You can determine your clients’ total cholesterol score with this equation: HDL level + LDL level + 20% of triglyceride level . Total cholesterol should be evaluated with the following measurements [4, 5, 6, 29]:
- Total cholesterol: <200 mg/dL
- LDL cholesterol: <100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol: >60 mg/dL
- Triglycerides: <150 mg/dL
How to identify cardiovascular risk factors with your clients
While your clients’ LDL and HDL levels offer valuable insight into their cardiovascular health, age, genetics, and lifestyle choices also play a role. Here are some factors that can contribute to high cholesterol and poor heart health.
- Sex: Men between the ages of 20 and 39 are more likely to have higher total cholesterol levels than women .
- Age: The risk for high LDL levels increases with age, and is most common for people between 40 and 59 years old .
- Smoking and alcohol: Cigarette/tobacco use and excessive alcohol intake (>2 drinks per day) are correlated with low levels of HDL and elevated LDL [5,9].
- Weight: If your client is overweight or obese it can increase their risk of cardiovascular disease and decreased HDL levels [6,7].
- Physical activity: One of the biggest risk factors for poor heart health is a sedentary lifestyle with little exercise .
10 foods to boost heart health
While you aren’t able to change your clients’ genetics, you can positively influence cholesterol levels with certain dietary recommendations. Here are some of the best foods to include in your clients’ meal plans to increase cardiovascular health.
1. Leafy green vegetables
Leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, and collard greens offer a plethora of vitamins, minerals, and subsequent health benefits. Studies show that since these vegetables are rich in vitamin K and nitrates, they help reduce blood pressure, promote blood clotting, and improve arterial function, thus boosting cardiovascular health [12, 13, 14]. Moreover, research has found a correlation between an increased consumption of leafy green vegetables and a 16% reduced risk of heart disease .
Tip: Add leafy greens to your clients’ meal plans through smoothies, salads, and plant-based entrees.
2. Whole grains
Emerging evidence shows that eating three more servings of whole grains daily is associated with a 22% lower risk of heart disease . This is due to the fiber content found in whole grains, as this helps reduce LDL cholesterol, prevent atherosclerosis, and offer other cardioprotective benefits .
Tip: Include a few servings of quinoa, brown rice, barley, and oatmeal to boost your clients’ whole grain intake.
Research has found that consuming antioxidant-rich foods, like berries, may reduce several risk factors for heart disease (such as LDL cholesterol, BMI, inflammatory markers, and systolic blood pressure) .
Tip: Fresh or frozen berries offer the same health benefits, so add them to meal plans for your clients to enjoy all year long.
Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fats, a type of fat that is known for its’ cardioprotective benefits. In fact, research shows that regularly consuming avocados increases HDL and lowers LDL cholesterol, which may reduce the risk of heart disease .
Tip: Avocados can be added to your clients’ smoothies, baked goods, or eggs for an additional dose of healthy fats.
5. Fatty fish
Studies have found that eating fatty fish (such as salmon) three times per week can decrease blood pressure, reduce triglycerides, and improve arterial function . However, if your client doesn’t enjoy eating fish, you could try fish oil supplements, as they have been shown to have the same benefits .
Tip: For additional heart health benefits, add salmon to a spinach salad. Top with berries for even more flavor!
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Nuts are a great heart-healthy addition to your clients’ diet, as studies show that eating walnuts can reduce LDL cholesterol by 16%, decrease inflammation, and lower diastolic blood pressure .
Tip: Consuming low amounts of unsaturated fats increases LDL cholesterol, so boost those levels by adding walnuts to your client’s yogurt bowl, salad, or midday snack .
7. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, an antioxidant that can help boost heart health. Studies have found that those who ate dark chocolate (at least 70%) at least five times per week had a 57% lower risk of coronary heart disease compared to non-chocolate eaters .
Tip: Chocolate doesn’t need to just be for dessert! Add it to oatmeal with berries and walnuts for a healthful and filling breakfast.
Go red for cardioprotective benefits! Tomatoes contain an antioxidant called lycopene which helps to neutralize free radicals and protect against oxidative damage and inflammation . Moreover, research shows that low levels of lycopene are associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke .
Tip: While all tomatoes are a heart-healthy option, canned tomatoes have a higher lycopene content than fresh tomatoes. Include them in your clients’ diet with ingredients like tomato paste, canned diced tomatoes, and tomato sauce.
Filled with heart healthy nutrients like fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, seeds (such as chia, flax, and hemp) are great additions to your clients’ diet, as they can reduce blood pressure and improve total cholesterol .
Tip: Seeds are a powerful addition to your clients’ meal plan, and are delicious when added to smoothies, salads, baked goods, oatmeal, and power bowls.
10. Olive oil
Olive oil is a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants, both of which have been shown to relieve inflammation and reduce the risk of chronic disease . Moreover, studies suggest that a higher intake of olive oil was associated with a 48% lower risk of dying from heart disease .
Tip: Have your clients reap the heart healthy benefits of olive oil by suggesting a drizzle over cooked dishes or adding to vinaigrettes and sauces.
While medications and lifestyle changes can help improve cardiovascular health, diet also plays a major role. Certain foods (such as spinach, avocados, walnuts, and tomatoes) have a direct impact on blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol levels and inflammation, so by including them in your clients’ diet, you can help boost their heart health and reduce the risk of other cardiovascular related factors.
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