Many of us know that heart disease is the number one killer of adults in the United States, claiming the life of one person every 33 seconds. However unlike other diseases that are hereditary or subject to chance, a person’s diet is the main contributor to the onset of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular morbidity and death.
These facts are nothing new, and yet “quick-fix treatments” are much more likely to be prescribed than solving one of the roots of the problem- nutrition. The good news is that plant-based diets have been shown to improve cardiovascular outcomes time and time again in clinical studies. Stick around as we discuss 6 plant-based options to aid in the fight against heart disease.
The difference between a heart-stopping and a heart-saving diet
If it still hasn’t sunk in, food is nearly everything when determining the outcome of heart disease. The most important behavioral risk factor for ischemia is the diet which generally consists of high amounts of sodium, processed meats, and trans fats. These diets also follow a pattern of low amounts of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
On the flip side plant-based diets can not only reduce heart disease mortality but also optimize blood pressure, glycemic and lipid control, and as a result reduce the need for medication.
As prescribed by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, a diet that decreases Artherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease (ASCVD) promotes the intake of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. A switch of saturated fats for mono-saturated and poly-saturated fats is recommended with a reduction in sodium, processed meats, refined carbs and sweetened drinks.
Berries serve as both a sweet treat and a healthy option for fighting heart disease. These fruits are a solid source of polyphenols, specifically anthocyanins, micronutrients, and fiber.
The consumption of berry fruits and their effects on cardiovascular health has been a point of interest in the health community for a long time. The most popular berries in the United States include:
- black raspberries
- red raspberries
Other lesser-known berries that improve heart health include:
- black currant
Berries by nature are full of moisture and high in plant fiber. Despite their structural makeup these fruits are packed with important antioxidants and micronutrient like vitamins C and E. These components combat cell damage in the body- including the heart. These same antioxidants help bolster low density lipid oxidation, total plasma antioxidant capacity, dyslipidemia, and glucose metabolism- all factors that improve cardiovascular risk profiles.
One of the main contributors of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity is believed to be chronic inflammation. Fortunately berries have anti-inflammatory properties. While more research is necessary, it’s antioxidant benefits are more than ample for negating the effects of cellular breakdown.
Outside of directly affecting the heart, berries also play an important role in the proper flow and function of blood vessels. These fruits (specifically strawberries and blueberries) contain anythocyanins.
Anthocyanins make up the largest group of natural, water-soluble, plant pigments, giving the bright colors to berry fruits and flowers. They are generally more concentrated in the skins of fruits, especially berry fruits which researchers believe relax blood vessels, thus allowing blood to travel more efficiently.
Since ancient times, countless cultures have praised garlic for its healing properties. For example the ancient Indian text Chakara-Samhita specifically recommends garlic as a remedy for heart disease and arthritis. There have been LOTS of studies on garlic’s lipid effects in modern times, as far back as 1975. While there have been varying results over the decades- garlic has proven its effectiveness for combating heart disease.
For starters garlic is made up of a substance called allicin which is believed to have a positive effect on the heart. When garlic is cut or chopped, allinase enzymes are activated which eventually produces allicin. It is an antioxidant that both decreases oxidative stress and inflammation, major factors associated with heart disease.
Garlic has also had positive outcomes on atherosclerosis, a condition most known for the build- up of plaque along the arterial walls. With the reduction of oxidative stress and inflammation the chances of hardened and narrowed arteries are greatly reduced, preventing possible heart attacks.
Some of the most consistent studies found that aged garlic extract had the most profound effect on cholesterol and blood pressure. Raw garlic homogenate, the most common way to consume garlic, has also been studied and proven to have healthy benefits as well. Regardless of how you choose to consume it, whether in powder form, cloves, or chopped, it’s a great way to add flavor and heart health to each meal.
Before we can talk about beets, it’s important to understand a little about Nitric Oxide (ON). Research suggests that vegetable’s cardiovascular benefits are due to nitric oxide, which apparently has vasodilating and tissue-protecting properties.
Beetroot juice as it turns out is one of the highest nitric containing vegetable products. As a result subjects have experienced lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Studies have also validated that chronic ingestion of beetroot juice lowered blood pressure in hypertensive subjects.
This juice also comes with in increased production of H2S, a powerful gaso-transmitter that triggers a chain reaction of events on the cardiovascular system.
It’s also packed with numerous bioactive agents including betanin, flavonoids, vitamin C, and other polyphenols that have very potent antioxidant properties.
Beets are low in calories and fat, making them a healthy addition to a balanced diet. They are also a good source of vitamins and minerals, including folate, manganese, and copper. These nutrients contribute to overall heart health and support the proper functioning of the cardiovascular system.
While the taste of beets in their basic form aren’t everyone’s preference, there are still great ways to add it or it’s juices into healthy dishes and beverages.
The concept that moderate chocolate consumption can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet has gained traction in recent years. What most of us forget is that this sweet treat originates from a plant, and as a result it protects cells and tissue from the development of pathological conditions. Researchers attribute cocoa’s healing properties to the maintenance of nitric oxide production and antioxidant effects.
One specific substance in dark chocolate that’s given credit for the candy’s heart healthy benefits are flavanols. Flavanols are a subgroup of polyphenols found in other fruits and vegetables including grapes, apples, pomegranates, and tea. This polyphenol considered an antioxidant due to its free radical activity- essentially reducing the oxidation of multiple molecules including lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
High cocoa and chocolate consumption have been associated with decreases in cardiovascular disease in a few studies. A closed-case study from Italy determined the risk of myocardial infarction was inversely associated with chocolate consumption. The results showed as much as a 77% decrease in risk when comparing the group that ate more than 3 portions of chocolate per day and the participants that ate less than one.
A positive association was also found between the moderate consumption of chocolate and inflammation. Due to the abundance of nitric oxide, dark chocolate can also reduce platelet reactivity, a precursor to thrombosis and other cardiovascular disease pathologies 1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2797556/.
Seeds are not just a good source of protein and unsaturated fats, they’re also an important source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, micronutrients like vitamin E,
Certain seeds like flaxseeds and chia seeds, are high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which can help improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids are known for reducing inflammation and improving blood vessel function, while fiber can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Pumpkin and sunflower seeds are rich in magnesium, which can help lower blood pressure levels. Seeds are generally an abundant source of antioxidants that also contain elements that have anti-inflammatory properties. These properties can help lower inflammation and fortify the body against chronic diseases, specifically heart disease.
The legume family is made up of three distinct subgroups: oilseed legumes, fresh legumes, and pulses. The term legume refers to plants that have their seed(s) enclosed in pods, thus encompassing a wide spectrum of foods. This can include foods such as soybeans and peanuts to lentils, peas, beans, and chickpeas.
In a way beans specifically are an ideal food to incorporate into the diet. They’re packed with nutrients: carbohydrates, starches, fiber, potassium, copper, phosphorus, manganese, iron, magnesium, and B-vitamins, contain almost no sodium or fat, and are an excellent source of protein, with 21–25% content by weight.
Dry beans (kidney, black, navy) have a favorable fatty acid content, balanced by low levels of Linoleic acid which has been linked to obesity. All of these nutritional benefits play a role in the bean’s cardio-protective properties- which are lengthy and wide-reaching.
Research has found that beans are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and soluble fibers that improve glucose control- a crucial component of cardiovascular disease. Beans have a low glycemic index which makes them the prime choice for managing blood pressure and controlling blood glucose.
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