Eating to Your Heart’s Content

February is known as heart health month.  The saying goes – An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure.  We couldn’t agree more!  While heart health is something we seldom give thought to before we reach adulthood, it is something we believe should be nurtured throughout our lives.

Healthy diet and lifestyle habits play a critical role in heart health.  Also, one can hardly overlook the great importance of exercise and activeness in keeping the heart in tip-top shape.

Let’s take a look at some of the greatest dietary contributors to heart health, touching on which ones to grab and which ones to avoid.

Omega 3’s

Omega 3’s have now long been touted for boosting brain power and reducing inflammation but did you know that these amazing fatty acids also support heart health?

Grab:  While salmon has well set atop its pedestal in this category, it’s certainly not the only source of omega 3’s.  Be sure to try adding walnuts, flax seeds, or chia seeds which also come with added fiber and countless other amazing health benefits.

Avoid:  Refined or overly processed oils that may have been damaged during processing; oils that are out of date or which have been stored in warm places (extracted oils can go rancid when exposed to heat and/or oxygen.

Green Vegetables

You know, I cannot think of a single body part or function that green vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, don’t optimize!  Greens are chock full off protein (that’s right, I said protein), vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytonutrients, fresh water and fiber.  They are absolute nutritional powerhouses packing an enormous nutritional punch in a very low-cal package.

Grab:  Greens offer varying nutritional profiles and differences across the board so be sure to mix it up with spinach, broccoli, kale, chard, wheatgrass and peas!  Getting a good variety serves to provide your family with a wealth of benefits, even beyond helping to keep those big hearts beating at their best.

Avoid:  Non-organic leafy greens which have been sprayed (you can’t peel them and those sprays just soak right into those leaves); Drenching them with dressings.  A little dressing or sauce is okay, especially if its homemade but saturating them in most store-bought dressings kindly defeats the purpose.

Oatmeal & WHOLE Grains

Oatmeal is loaded with heart healthy fiber and nutrients!  Oatmeal is said to act like a sponge in the digestive tract, lowering cholesterol as it soaks it up and carries it out of the body.  Many other whole grains also come with fiber and healthful fatty acids to help boost your body’s wellness.  Be sure to avoid any refined grains and only use grain products which incorporate all parts of the grain (the bran, germ and endosperm).

Grab:  Steel cut oats are said to be the best and especially rich in silica (a nutrient especially key in the building and repair of connective tissues).  Old-Fashioned and thick rolled oats are also great choices.  {Our family eats these raw with cinnamon, fresh slices of banana, walnuts (optional), and maybe a touch of maple or honey with almond milk.  Easy, fast and delicious!}

Avoid: Instant Oats which often lack much of the same nutritional value due to processing; sweetened, flavored, prepackaged oats which come with a number of health-hazardous add-ins.

Berries

Juicy, sweet, delectable goodness – Berries are rich in antioxidants that help to decrease blood pressure and dilate blood vessels.

Grab:  Berries are amongst the Dirty Dozen for foods with the highest pesticide residues so shoot for organic where possible.  Buy frozen when fresh are unavailable (though the texture may be a touch different, they’re still delicious in smoothies and stirred into things like oats).  Enjoy 3+ servings a week of any berry of choice.

Avoid:  Dried berries soaked or coated in sugar or treated with sulfites (a.k.a. sulfur dioxide), or “berry flavored” foods and drinks that may sound good but typically have little-to-no actual berries and none of their benefit.

Citrus Fruits

Few foods can claim to be so refreshing as the band of citrus fruits.  They’re the perfect fruit to add sunshine to your day and to pave the way for brighter days ahead.  Citrus fruits are high in flavanoids which reduce clotting and consequential risk of ischemic stroke.  Their rich Vitamin C content has also been found to lower the risk of heart disease.

Grab:  Fresh whole fruits and raw/cold-pressed, unpasteurized juices

Avoid: Citrus juice with added sugar or which has been or those made from concentrate

Pomegranates & Apples

Pomegranates are loaded with antioxidants, including polyphenols and anthocyanins, which can help to keep the arteries soft and supple, and improve blood flow.

If you can’t get any pomegranates, or if you don’t care for the flavor, reach for some fresh, organic apples instead.

Grab:  Fresh pomegranates, fresh pomegranate seeds, or pomegranate juice, fresh apples or organic apple juice.

Avoid:  Pomegranate or apple juices from concentrate and/or with added sugars.

Grapes

Red wine has received great attention for contributing to heart health.  It is loaded with antioxidants said to help protect the heart by reducing the risk of blood clots, reducing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, preventing damage to blood vessels in the heart and maintaining a healthy blood pressure.  Of these antioxidants, resveratrol has been extensively observed in matters of heart health in an attempt to figure out just what makes wine so beneficial to the heart.

The amount of antioxidants in grapes depends on many factors, including the kind of grape, its geographic origin and how it’s processed. Dark red and purple grapes tend to be higher in antioxidants than are white or green grapes.

While some alcohol in itself is said to be of benefit to the heart, You don’t have to booze it up to still receive the many great health benefits grapes have to offer.

Grab:  A cluster of fresh red or purple grapes or a glass of cold-pressed/raw grape juice.  Peanuts/peanut butter are also noted for their resveratrol content.

Avoid:  Juices made from concentrate or with added sugars or other additives; sugar-coated raisins

Legumes

Beans, lentils and peas are loaded with protein without the added fat found in animal protein.  On top of that, legumes provide plenty of fiber to support digestive and cardiovascular health and more.  Legumes are also noted for their benefit in helping to stabilize glucose levels, provided an added benefit to the heart as diabetes is said to be strongly linked to heart disease.

Grab: 4+ servings a week of an assortment of beans.  Add them to soups and stews, puree them into dips and spreads, enjoy them plain or use them as a stand-in for meats in salads or pressed into patties.

Avoid: Depending on lentil/ bean chips, loaded with fat and salt, to help you get those 4 servings a week

Potatoes

Some days there’s just nothing like a good spud to settle the soul!  White potatoes especially have gotten such a bad rap, being pitched in the pile with other white, refined carbohydrates and junk food (which they absolutely are not!).  While we’re not granting permission to biggie size those fries, we are totally encouraging you to bump that oven up to 425, toss them babies with some garlic, salt and EVOO and get those spuds to roasting!

Potatoes come packed with energy, fiber and minerals, such as potassium, that are key in body function and repair, serving to support a healthy body and a healthy heart.

Grab:  A variety of fresh, organic potatoes.  Sweet Potatoes, Russetts, reds, golds…  All so delicious and each so perfect for any number of applications.  Enjoy them boiled, mashed, or roasted.

Avoid:  Fried Spuds, including french fries, potato chips and other “convenient” spuds (yes, that includes instant mashed) which often trade nutrition for fat, salt, sugar and other less-than-optimal add-ins.  Conventional spuds – non-organic potatoes take in many contaminants from the soil in which their grown and are typically sprayed with a sprout inhibitor to keep them from sprouting like crazy in those bags while they wait for you to buy them.

Tomatoes

Also high in heart-healthy potassium and rich in antioxidants, such as lycopene, a carotenoid that may help lower “bad” cholesterol, keep blood vessels open and lower heart attack risks.

Tomatoes have to be the most prevalent fruit in the American kitchen.  Soups, sauces, whole slices, petite little poppers, salsas, dips, fresh, dried, sliced, diced, you name it.  You’re hard pressed to find a chef (or mom) that doesn’t appreciate the versatility of tomatoes in their kitchen.

Grab: The best quality you can get your hands on.  The richer and deeper the red, generally the riper the tomato and the better the flavor.  When fresh aren’t available, look for organic sauces and sulfite-free dried tomatoes..

Avoid:  Dried tomatoes treated with sulfites or those barely pink tomatoes at the grocer that have been picked way too soon.  (They’re still edible but let me assure you, the flavor just isn’t there and the pre-maturing picking + long travel times/distances from the crop to your table results in far less nutritional value for you and your family.  This is why I buy more jarred, organic tomato products in the cool weather months until I can get my hands on the good stuff in season.)

Garlic

There are few foods that I love the way I love me some garlic!  Oh, who am I kidding?  I LOVE FOOD!  …especially scrumptiously delicious healthful veggies smothered in garlic.  Turns out I have all the reason I need to keep justifying my culinary default of flavoring most everything in my kitchen with garlic.  {Come on!  Garlic makes most any food betta’!}

Garlic is rich in antioxidants and is used to help prevent heart disease, including atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries (plaque buildup in the arteries that can block the flow of blood and may lead to heart attack or stroke), high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and to boost the immune system. Eating garlic regularly may also help protect against cancer.

Grab:  Fresh heads of garlic.  “Freshest is bestest!” especially when eating for health benefits.  If fresh, raw garlic is unavailable, I would look for cloves set it oil.  I’ve used the minced stuff too but, seriously, the flavor just isn’t the same!

Avoid: relying on garlic powders that have been irradiated to prevent spoilage.

Soy

Soy is one of those foods it seems you either love or hate.  While not everyone appreciates it’s textures, soy can be incredibly versatile in the kitchen.  Tofu can stand-in in omelettes, scrambles, or in place of feta chunks.  It can be used to make an awesome, vegan-friendly pumpkin pie that can make even the most committed carnivores swoon.  Tempeh is excellent tossed with a touch of oil and your favorite seasoning salt.

Grab:  Organic tofu, tempeh, natto, miso, edamame, soy bean sprouts, soy milk and more.  Just be sure you’re buying organic.  See note below.*

Avoid: Deconstructed soy, such as soy protein isolate.  Also, avoid pre-marinated or pre-made soy products which are typically heavily laden with salt and also often coming with a lot of added fat.  Also, avoid non-organic soy products.

*Soy is amongst the top genetically modified (GMO) crops.  Because current legislation does not require the labeling of GMO’s, the only way to avoid them is to buy organic.  Don’t let your discretionary eye rest when not looking through the tofu either.  Soy is found in everything from pre-made meat patties (it’s all up in fast food burgers, nuggets…you name it), dairy products, beverages and toppings, and countless others products you probably wouldn’t even suspect.  Read the label.  If it says soy anything but isn’t organic, chances are good that is GMO.

Avocados

This Creamy, dreamy goodness is loaded with heart healthy fats, particularly monounsaturated fats such as those found in Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  Avocados are noted for lower heart disease risk factors such as cholesterol, and are rich in antioxidants and potassium.

Avocados are not only delicious in guacamole, they are also excellent added to salads and sandwiches, standing in in place of mayo.  They can also be pureed into smoothies, shakes and dressings for added creaminess and nutrition.  Or, enjoy them just as they are with a touch of salt, tamari/Bragg’s Liquid Aminos/soy sauce, your favorite salsa, or topped with sauerkraut. (Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!  It’s a favorite around these parts.)

Grab:  a spoon and an avocado and go to town!

Avoid:  Prepackaged avocado preparations such as guac or avocado dressings, particularly those treated with preservatives to prevent the natural browning that occurs naturally and rapidly as avocados oxidize.

Nuts

Despite the shouts from those who’d like to insist we should avoid fats as much as possible, a growing wealth of research continues to disprove such claims and show that a daily serving of nuts can do wonders for helping to reduce the waistline and boost overall health.  Nuts bring added fiber to the diet while also providing us with heart healthy fats and other beneficial nutrients, such as Vitamin E.

Grab:  A great variety of raw or unroasted nuts, including walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios, cashews and macadamia nuts.

Avoid:  Roasted/Salted and flavored nuts.  Some companies offer spice/herbed nuts.  Those are fine.  Just avoid excessive amounts of salt and “natural or artificial flavors.”

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil has long been renowned for its amazing health benefits and the critical role in giving the Mediterranean it’s great prominence amongst the health-conscious.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a good source of monounsaturated fats which reduce both cholesterol and blood sugar levels.  Please see our notes below on picking a proper oil and avoiding being completely ripped off at the grocer.  Try not to overcook these oils.  EVOO provides the greatest flavor and health benefit when used as a finishing oil (added once the food has been removed from the heat)*

Grab:  Fresh olives to be enjoyed solo or atop salads, pastas, pizzas, sandwiches, wraps and more.  Organic, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil

Avoid:  Olives treated with preservatives other than salt or vinegar; olive oils produced from conventionally grown olives and/or extracted using chemical agents (see notes below*)

*Producers of Extra Virgin Olive Oil have been receiving much unwanted attention as they’ve been being exposed for ripping off the masses, selling products claiming to be the real deal while being cut with inferior oils to save on production costs.  Still, these bottles bear labels stating “100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil,” “Authentic” or “Made in Italy.”

The truth is, before all this was brought to light, I’d had both and told my husband that I wasn’t fully sure as to why at the time but they each had a very different smell.  My Napa Valley Organic EVOO boasted an amazing flavor and inviting fragrance.  However, the other stuff that was just picked up on a whim from our local grocer had a very strange smell to me.  The flavor wasn’t there.  It was VERY different.  I’ve found that the best use for the latter has been for seasoning my cast iron cookware.

Oils of all kinds (olive, coconut, you name it) are generally categorized as refined/unrefined, extra virgin/virgin or pure.  The latter refers to which pressing its from.  “Extra Virgin” oils are from the first pressing.  The boast the greatest flavors and health benefits.  “Virgin” oils come from the second pressing, bringing forth a decent oil but less flavor and nutritional benefit.  “Pure” is your lowest quality, indicating that the oil comes from any pressing after the second, and may contain residues from chemicals used to aid in the extraction of every last bit of oil.

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants and minerals such as magnesium, manganese, iron copper, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium.

Higher chocolate consumption has been linked to a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in strokes and with lowering the risk of cardio-metabolic disorders.

Grab: Dark chocolates with 65%+ cocoa/cacao; Raw Cacao nibs or powder (same flavor as cocoa powder while being a higher quality product, adding a boost of energy to your day; add to smoothies or pair it with avocado to indulge in a decadent chocolate pudding such as the one we’ve shared here.

Avoid:  Milk chocolate or any chocolate made with regular sugar (“sugar” on the label generally refers to refined white sugar which promotes diabetes; look for ones sweetened with evaporated cane sugar, erythritol, or stevia instead).  Steer clear of the candy aisle and the junk at the cash register or chocolates loaded with unhealthful add-ins.

Be sure to SHARE this article with friends and family as we work together to reshape the future for our children and the many generations their lives will impact.

Written: 2/11/2016

Additional Resources:  http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20720182,00.html; http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/garlic; http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/prevention/nutrition/food-choices/benefits-of-chocolate; http://www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-eating/food/article/types-soy-foods;http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?dbid=84&tname=nutrient

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