The foods we choose to eat and how often we eat them play a major role in keeping our heart and entire cardiovascular system functioning healthily.
Just like any other organ, the heart needs particular nutrients to function. Several nutritional factors affect our blood pressure, which in turn affects vascular health. Meanwhile, the fats we eat affect the cholesterol profile in our blood. Finally, it is now recognised that low-grade inflammation in the body is part of the development of cardiovascular disease; that means certain foods with an anti-inflammatory effect benefit your heart.
Here are five of my favourite heart-healthy foods.
BeetrootBeetroot has rarely been listed on typical superfood lists, but that is all likely to change. Recent research has shown that this beautifully vibrant purple vegetable can lower your blood pressure. It is one of the best sources of dietary nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide in the body, helping relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure. Try adding beetroot to your salads. Grate raw beetroot and add to sandwiches and wraps. Roast them in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar or throw into your Vitamix to make a fabulous purple smoothie.
Garlic: Garlic is a pretty powerful health promoter all around and it deserves a particular mention in relation to heart health. The pungent bulbs have been shown in studies to improve cholesterol profiles by raising HDL (so-called good) cholesterol and lowering LDL (so-called bad) cholesterol. Garlic is also anti-bacterial and contains a number of sulphur compounds that protect cells around the body from damage. Aim to have garlic most days to truly benefit. Its phytonutrients can be damaged by too much heat so avoid frying at high temperatures. Instead, add your garlic a little later when cooking (I add onion first, then lower the heat and add garlic) or use raw in dressings.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO): While coconut oil has had the media limelight, it doesn't have much evidence behind it. The opposite is true for extra virgin olive oil. It is at the heart (forgive the pun) of the Mediterranean diet, renowned for its power to reduce heart disease risk. EVOO is rich in monounsaturated fats. These are resistant to oxidative damage (so, yes, you can cook with this oil). The crucial point is that it is packed with protective phytonutrients simply not found in coconut oil or most other cooking oils. EVOO is my pantry staple. I use it every day in dressings and sauces, and to cook and bake.
Spinach: Leafy greens are amongst my everyday foods. I try to get them into at least two of my meals if not all three! Spinach is a favourite. One of the risk factors for heart disease is a high blood homocysteine level. This amino acid is produced when we break down proteins in our diet. B group vitamins, in particular folate, are involved in lowering homocysteine levels and, you guessed it, spinach is rich in folate. You'll also get a whole bunch of antioxidants that help prevent the oxidative damage that is part of the development of cardiovascular disease. Try wilting a bowl of spinach in the microwave for 30 seconds to have with your eggs. Add to salads, toss a handful into your Vitamix smoothies, fold through sauces, casseroles or stir-fries at the end of cooking. You can even use a whole bag to make a gorgeous, nutrient-packed green soup.
Nuts: While nuts were once shunned for their high fat content, they are now well recognised for their ability to boost health. So much so that our recommendations are to include a healthy handful every day. This comes from research showing you can reduce your risk of heart disease by 30%–50% simply by eating a handful of nuts five or more days a week ... wow! You can eat them on their own of course, but how about making your own nut butters in your Vitamix, sprinkling into salads and over your cereal, adding to muffins and other baked goodies? Crush nuts and use them as a coating for chicken or fish, or add them to your breakfast smoothie.