Foods to Support Your Best Cardiovascular Health

February is American Heart Month, and while you’ll no doubt see and hear a lot about the heart this month, it is but one piece of the whole picture of cardiovascular health. Of equal importance is the intricate system of arteries, veins, and capillaries—collectively called the blood vessels— that put the vascular in cardiovascular. The blood vessels are more than just inactive tubes for transporting the blood pumped by the heart; they play a crucial role in overall cardiovascular health, actively impacting blood pressure, blood viscosity, as well as the formation of plaque. The vascular system, and thus overall cardiovascular health, is very sensitive to the nutritional choices you make—every bite you take is a chance to improve your cardiovascular health.

February is American Heart Month, and while you’ll no doubt see and hear a lot about the heart this month, it is but one piece of the whole picture of cardiovascular health. Of equal importance is the intricate system of arteries, veins, and capillaries—collectively called the blood vessels— that put the vascular in cardiovascular. The blood vessels are more than just inactive tubes for transporting the blood pumped by the heart; they play a crucial role in overall cardiovascular health, actively impacting blood pressure, blood viscosity, as well as the formation of plaque. The vascular system, and thus overall cardiovascular health, is very sensitive to the nutritional choices you make—every bite you take is a chance to improve your cardiovascular health.

 

You’ve probably heard about some superstar cardiovascular foods like cold-water fatty fish (rich in omega-3’s) or dark chocolate and red wine (full of polyphenols), and with good reason, but there are so many more foods that fit the bill. Here are a few cardiovascular-friendly foods you may not have considered:

 

  • Nuts have continually been shown to support cardiovascular health, but the notion that their benefits come solely from the healthy fats they contain is being kicked to the curb. New research is shedding light on the mechanism in which nuts have such a positive impact on cardiovascular health—they repair damaged DNA. This is an incredible discovery, since DNA damage alters healthy gene expression and has been correlated not only with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease but also with insulin resistance and obesity, both of which are closely associated with cardiovascular disease progression. Aim for a 1-ounce serving daily.1,2,3,4 
  • Grass-fed beef is a nutritional world apart from conventionally-raised, grain-fed beef. It boasts an impressive omega-3 to omega-6 ratio that is far superior to that of grain-fed beef, which means that grass-fed beef, much like fatty, cold-water fish, helps protect against inflammation in the body. Grass-fed beef is also an excellent source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which was shown to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in patients with atherosclerosis,5 and vitamin E, which helps protect cholesterol from oxidizing. Be sure to choose 100% grass-fed beef.  
  • While it might not seem quite as fun and decadent, a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables knocks the socks off a nightly glass of red wine or a piece of  dark chocolate when it comes to keeping the cardiovascular system in tip-top shape. One analysis found that for every serving of fruits and vegetables eaten daily the risk of coronary heart disease was reduced by four percent.6 Veggies in particular can help to keep blood sugar balanced which is also critical for protecting the delicate endothelium. In general, aim to get five to nine servings of vegetables and a couple servings of fruits, in a rainbow of colors, daily. Some particularly beneficial choices for cardiovascular health include:
  • Beets, which promote blood vessel relaxation and healthy blood flow7 o Allium family vegetables like onions, garlic, leeks, and scallions, which support healthy blood flow and protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation8 9
  • Eggplant, purple cabbage, pomegranates, berries and other darkly colored fruits and veggies, which are high in a class of polyphenols called anthocyanins that protect against inflammation and oxidative damage
  • Vitamin K2 found in dairy from grass-fed animals (especially grass-fed butter and cheese), egg yolks from pastured chickens, and organ meats from pastured animals, directs calcium to the bones and prevents it from settling in the arteries where it can lead to atherosclerosis.  It also modulates inflammation. In general, a high intake of vitamin K2 is associated with lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. 10,11  

 

As important as what you include in your diet is what you leave out. Trans-fats (a.k.a. partially- hydrogenated fats), high glycemic index and glycemic load foods (breads, muffins, bagels, crackers, pastries, and sweets) and omega-6 fats (from vegetable oils like corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, and cottonseed) have all been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.12,13 The processed and fast food industries are built on these cardiovascular killers; moving toward a natural-foods diet, built on organic vegetables and fruit, pastured meat and dairy, and healthy fats is one of the most important changes you can make for cardiovascular health.

 

The Saturated Fat Myth

The beauty of scientific theories is that they can be rejected or modified as new evidence becomes available. Recently, the long-held theory that saturated fat causes heart disease is being turned on its head. For nearly five decades we’ve been told that eating saturated fats will clog our arteries and cause heart disease, but a closer look at the research suggests this theory doesn’t have much truth behind it. A recent analysis of 21 published studies found no connection between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease risk, confirming what many in the holistic health field have suspected all along—saturated fats are not the bad guys they’ve been made out to be.14 For more information about saturated fats and their health benefits see the Natural Grocers Customer Literature File Fats—Saturated. 

 

Recipes

Fesenjan (pomegranate and walnut chicken stew)

Makes 4 servings

 

1 cup pomegranate juice

1 ½ cups walnuts

2 tablespoons butter or ghee 2 pounds boneless chicken thighs and breasts, cut into bite-size pieces 

1 medium yellow onion, diced 2 cups of chicken broth

2 tablespoons honey

½ teaspoon turmeric

¼ teaspoon each cinnamon, black pepper, and sea salt 1 cup pomegranate seeds 

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

 

In a small sauce pan bring the pomegranate juice to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently until reduced by half, about 30 minutes. Set aside.  

 

In a large dry skillet toast the walnuts over medium-low heat just until fragrant, then place on a plate to cool. Once cool, transfer to a food processor and blend until finely chopped, but not pasty.

 

Lightly salt the chicken. Heat butter or ghee over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven and cook the chicken in batches until golden brown. As the chicken cooks, remove to a large plate. Reduce heat to medium and add the onions (you may need to add a little more butter) and sauté until soft. Return the cooked chicken to the skillet and add the chicken broth. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat to a simmer and stir in the walnut meal, honey, spices, and reduced pomegranate juice. Stir to combine and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until slightly thickened. Serve over steamed brown rice, or baked spaghetti squash for a low-carb option.

 

Brilliant Beet Brownies

Makes 9 brownies

 

1 medium beet, scrubbed and trimmed of the ends (about 1 cup once puréed) 

½ cup honey

2 tablespoons grass-fed butter or coconut oil, melted 

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 eggs

1 cup almond flour

½ cup raw cacao powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

Pinch of sea salt

 

Preheat oven to 350⁰. Boil or steam the beet until easily pierced with a fork. Allow it cool then chop and transfer to a blender along with the honey, butter (or coconut oil, if using), and vanilla extract. Blend well; add the eggs and blend again until smooth. In a large bowl, sift together the remaining ingredients. Pour the beet mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well. Pour into a well-greased 8x8” pan and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out free of crumbs. Let cool completely before cutting. 

 

 

References available upon request