7 min|Dr. Maya Kuczma
A Naturopathic Doctor's Guide To Heart-Healthy FoodsWellness, Health, Gut Health, Heart Health
What's your diet like?
Vegan? Paleo? Ketogenic? Vegetarian? If it seems like you’re always hearing new, and often conflicting, dietary information, you’re right: the diet industry is booming. Every January, this becomes more and more apparent. Walk in to any bookstore at the beginning of the new year and you will see a row - or even an entire section - devoted to new diet books promising weight loss, more energy, relief from pain, or a variety of other health claims. If you’re like most people, you pick up a book, excited at the prospect of better health, and you dive right in, claiming that this year will be different; this year, you will stick to a new plan for good.
Inevitably, for many of us, we fall off the wagon, discouraged by plans that limit - or eliminate - entire food groups.We could write an article about all the foods to limit if you are concerned about your heart health, but we’ve noticed that emphasizing what you can eat tends to lead to healthier choices, without feeling deprived.
When it comes to habit formation, many of us have ‘linchpin habits’ - a habit that leads to other habits, good or bad. For example, we watch football with friends on Sunday, which leads to binging on processed food, leading to a poor sleep Sunday night, and feeling too tired Monday morning to workout. Or, we work late Fridays without packing a snack, leading to us being too hungry to cook, so we order a pizza on the way home. Look for your own linchpins - the moments in your week that tend to lead to unhealthy food choices - and discover where you could swap in healthier choices, circumventing the usual pattern.
Where in your week could you swap in one of these heart-healthy foods? Could you pack some in your lunch to have on hand if you need a snack? Could you swap out your typical animal protein for a higher quality option? Could you choose a healthier dessert option? Could you have a healthier option available during social events?
Heart-healthy Food Choices for a Healthier Life
A funny thing happens when we make a healthy choice - it leads to us making more healthy choices. So rather than taking on a drastic new diet, make a small change by including the heart-healthy foods listed here, and you might find that one small change leads to many more changes, all year long.
Why? Berries are nutritional powerhouses, and nature’s candy. You can tell just by looking at them - their rich colors are due to anthocyanins, compounds that are anti-inflammatory. Raspberries and strawberries also contain ellagic acid, a compound that inhibits damage to the endothelial cells, the cells that line our arteries. Blueberries contain pterostilibene, a compound that prevents deposition of plaque into our arteries.
How? Due to our chilly weather up North, we only have access to fresh local berries for a small portion of the year. However, berries freeze really well - keep them in the freezer to add to smoothies, or blend them up with frozen bananas and coconut milk for a thick, icy dessert. Fresh blueberries or strawberries are delicious in a spinach salad, or pop a dark chocolate chip into a raspberry for a dessert even kids will approve of. Enjoy a handful of fresh berries, or put them on top of your usual morning cereal or oatmeal.
2. Grass-fed beef
Why? Factory-farmed beef is higher in inflammation-promoting omega-6 fatty acids and trans-fats, and contain signficantly lower levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids when compared to grass-fed beef. When cow’s are grass-fed, their meat has a completely different composition, resulting in less omega-6s, a higher amount of omega-3s, as well as higher levels of CLA, a fatty-acid beneficial for heart health and body composition.
How? Many farms are returning to raising pastured cattle. As a result, grass-fed meat is showing up in local butchers, as well as big box grocery stores. The more we purchase it, the greater the demand, and the more likely grocery chains are to carry it at a reasonable price. Vote with your dollars and begin to buy grass-fed beef whenever possible. Chop up grass-fed steak for a stir-fry; choose ground grass-fed beef for taco bowls; make grass-fed beef burger patties or grass-fed beef skewers to grill on the barbecue.
3. Vegetables, especially leafy greens
Why? If there’s one thing people from all diet camps can agree on, it’s this: eat more plants. Higher consumption of fruit and vegetables is correlated with lower rates of coronary heart disease. In particular, consumption of green leafy vegetables has been associated with lowering risks of myocardial infarction, stroke, and coronary heart disease. The benefits don’t end there - vegetables are rich in a variety of healthy antioxidants, fiber, minerals and vitamins, beneficial to the heart, as well as the rest of the body.
How? When creating a meal, start with at least half a plate of veggies. In the winter months, roast a huge pan of root vegetables in avocado oil, such as sweet potato, beets, parsnips, yams, and onion. It will keep for at least a few days and can easily become the base of your lunch and dinner. If you don’t have much time when you get home from work - sauté kale, spinach, collard greens, or bok choy in a pan - it will be cooked in minutes. On the weekend, chop up raw veggies to keep in the fridge all week for a quick snack. Or, if you’re making a smoothie, increase the nutritional content by throwing in a handful of spinach, kale, or frozen cauliflower florets.
Why? When garlic is crushed or chopped, the compounds within it mix to create a compound known as allicin. Allicin has many medicinal properties: it reduces clotting, acts as an antioxidant, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, and is antimicrobial.
How? Crush garlic and throw it in with root vegetables before roasting them. Chop it up and sauté it in avocado oil when you are cooking leafy greens. Throw it into guacamole, alongside avocado, onion, and peppers, to serve at social events, or to have as a snack at work - it is delicious with chopped up raw veggies or seed or rice crackers. Cook it in a pan with grass-fed ground beef to use as a base for a burrito bowl.
5. Dark chocolate
Why? Good news - high levels of chocolate consumption are associated with a reduction in the risk of developing heart disease. Flavonoids, a compound found in dark chocolate, may lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation. Cocoa intake has been inversely linked to elevated blood pressure, as well as 15-year cardiovascular mortality. Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate was shown to improve endothelial function.
How? Dark chocolate has much higher levels of flavonoids than milk chocolate, and milk may inhibit the absorption of flavonoids. Look for dark chocolate with at least 60% cocoa content - the darker, the better. Swap out milk chocolate chips for dark chocolate chips in baking recipes. Enjoy a few squares of dark chocolate after dinner for dessert, or mid-afternoon with a cup of green tea when you tend to reach for a bag of chips or another coffee. Blend dark cocoa with avocado, a splash of vanilla, and maple syrup, for a delicious chocolate mousse.
6. Green tea
Why? Green tea consumption has been inversely correlated with death from cardiovascular disease. Green tea has also been shown to have a beneficial effect on endothelial function. It also reduces LDL cholesterol in hypercholesterolemic adults.
How? Green tea contains caffeine, so you can swap it into your day when you would typically drink coffee. Matcha, an antioxidant dense powdered green tea, can also be used to make a delicious latte. Brew green tea alone or alongside a berry tea, and keep it in the fridge to have as a refreshing drink on a hot day. You can even make green tea ice cubes to throw into a smoothie or a glass of water.