Lately I’ve been thinking about Island hearts. With the opportunity to write this, my first Gazette article and the launch of what I hope will become a regular column about nutrition, I’d like to focus on our community of hearts.
What can we as individuals do nutritionally to protect and strengthen them? There are dozens of foods known to help fight heart disease, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke. What follows are a few of my favorites, with some tips on how to include them in your diet. As a registered dietitian and nutritionist, my promise as I write these columns is to provide scientifically-proven nutrition advice that is also interesting and current. And I hope readers will contact me with questions or issues you would like to see addressed in a column.
In my practice, I like to give clients realistic and attainable nutrition and health-related goals that will fit into their lifestyle. In that vein, here are five things to do right now. Incorporate one tip each week to be on your way to a healthy heart.
• Beans and lentils. I love beans and lentils. They are inexpensive, easy to prepare and always available. They are packed with fiber and protein, making you full longer (and preventing rapid blood sugar rises). Even better, most of the fiber is the soluble kind, which binds with so-called bad LDL cholesterol and keeps it from being absorbed. Beans and lentils are also rich in flavonoids, antioxidants that fight cell damage and are also naturally present in tea, cocoa, soy, as well as fruits and vegetables. In the February 2012 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers presented evidence from more than 100,000 older adults studied over a period of seven years which found that those individuals with the highest consumption of flavonoids from foods had an almost 20 per cent lower risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.
I cook dry beans in the slow cooker. Use one pound of rinsed beans that have been soaked for at least six hours, enough water to cover by two inches, two bay leaves, some chopped onion and halved garlic cloves and cook on high for eight hours. Cook longer for tough beans like garbanzos (chick peas). Lentils don’t need to be presoaked and take less time to cook. My current favorite way to use beans is for breakfast. Wilt two cups of baby kale or spinach in one teaspoon olive oil. Cook one egg over easy and warm a half cup of beans in the same skillet. Layer greens, beans, then egg and top with 2 slices of avocado. Pair with a small clementine.
• Nuts. In the nutrition world, nuts are almost synonymous with a healthy heart. But I often see people who fear their high caloric value. It’s true that if you are trying to lose or maintain weight, you’ll need to portion the amount of nuts you eat. At 160 to 200 calories for just a quarter cup of nuts (a small handful), grazing on nuts could sabotage your weight-loss efforts. The key is to replace foods you currently eat with nuts. Research has focused on replacing either saturated fat calories (i.e. , butter and bacon) or refined carbohydrate calories ( i.e., white rice and refined grain bread) with nuts, leading to similar cardiac benefits. Nuts have been linked with lowering LDL cholesterol, raising heart-protective HDL cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. They are also rich in protein and fiber. A planned snack of almonds (maybe at 3:30 p.m., when our hungry minds can wander into sugarland), is the perfect remedy. I recommend eating a serving of unsalted, raw or dry-roasted nuts at least five days each week.
• Green tea. This popular tea is made from the dried and minimally-processed young leaves and leaf buds of the Camillia sinensis plant. I love its grassy, earthy flavor with subtle hints of sweetness. I prefer loose tea for the flavor, but there is still benefit in drinking the more common and less expensive tea bag preparations. One heart-protective benefit of drinking green tea is its high content of flavonoids. In addition, green tea is high in group of compounds called catechins, powerful antioxidants. Studies have shown them to be even more potent than the antioxidant vitamins C and E that we know so well. These antioxidants can help block the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, thereby improving blood flow and artery function, and may also increase good HDL cholesterol. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed a 46 to 65 per cent reduction in hypertension risk for habitual green or oolong tea-drinking Chinese men and women. The good news is that just one cup of green tea per day was enough to see benefit.
• Fish. Eating a variety of fish — particularly fatty fish like salmon (wild is recommended over farmed), tuna, mackerel, herring and sardines — at least twice a week has been shown to significantly decrease the risk of developing heart disease or dying from heart disease. DHA and EPA, two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, have been found to be largely responsible for these heart-healthy benefits. In season, locally and regionally-caught bass, bluefish, codfish, sole and swordfish also have modest amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Cook double portions of fresh fish and then use the leftovers on a fresh green salad or wrapped up in a taco with red cabbage, salsa and avocado for an easy healthy lunch the next day. Other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and canola oil, or DHA/EPA supplements. (Note: Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid fresh tuna, swordfish, shark, mackerel, tilefish and grouper.)
• Cocoa and dark chocolate. There’s been a lot of good news for chocolate lovers recently. Still, the health benefits of chocolate are mostly found in dark chocolate with at least 70 per cent cocoa. In a recent large study from Harvard, researchers found that women who ate one or two ounces of chocolate each week had a 32 per cent lower risk of heart failure than women who ate no chocolate. Other studies have linked eating dark chocolate with lower blood pressure, largely due to cocoa’s high concentration of flavonols, the powerful antioxidant compound leading the heart disease claims. The next time you are craving something sweet after a meal, try a couple of squares from a 70 per cent cocoa dark chocolate bar, or mix some unsweetened cocoa into a frothed or warmed mug of milk for a delicious heart-healthy treat. Keep in mind that chocolate is high in calories. It should be enjoyed in moderation and only as part of a diet already filled with deeply-colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, avocado and olive oil.
Prudence Athearn Levy, MS, RD, LD is a registered and licensed dietitian living and working in Edgartown. She is the co-owner of Vineyard Nutrition (vineyardnutrition.com). Her email address is email@example.com.