Diet is one of the frontline means of defense against heart disease. But not just any diet will do — it has to be something you can stick with for the long run. “You need to avoid fads,” says Steven Nissen, MD, chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. He advocates the Mediterranean diet as a prudent and sustainable food plan. Mounting evidence points to this style of eating as optimal not just for weight control but for prevention and reduction of inflammation (an underlying cause of many diseases) and control of cholesterol — all critical to your heart health. Here’s a look at how the components of this diet help keep you going strong.
Hang Out in the Garden of Eatin’
Adding more fruits and vegetables to your plate increases the anti-inflammatory benefits of every meal. These foods are rich in antioxidants (which protect your cells from damage) and other phytonutrients (plant-based nutritional compounds). Aim for an assortment of colors on a daily basis; it will help you get the widest array of nutrients. For instance, tomatoes contain lycopene, which research indicates has an anti-inflammatory effect on the lining of the arteries; leafy greens provide beta-carotene, which has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties; blueberries are rich in polyphenols, another anti-inflammatory phytonutrient.
Bulk up on Beans
“Beans! Beans! They’re good for your heart!” goes the old refrain — and it’s true. One of the benefits beans provide is soluble fiber (also found in oats, barley and brown rice), which lowers the level of LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream. LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, adheres to the lining of your arteries, creating plaque. By cutting its levels, you reduce the potential for plaque buildup (and if LDL drops enough, you may even reverse that buildup). Plus, beans are good sources of magnesium and potassium, which additionally benefit your heart by helping to regulate blood pressure. Try a three-bean salad with your meal, or snack on hummus (made from chickpeas) and carrots.
Go with the (Whole) Grains
Whole grains provide fiber, which plays an important role in regulating the body’s insulin response. Simple and processed carbs cause glucose spikes in the body and initiate inflammation when the sugar latches onto proteins, explains Thomas Morledge, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine; fiber-rich foods are digested more slowly and help avoid that cycle. Additionally, whole-grain foods naturally have more nutrients, including vitamin B6. Low levels of this vitamin have been linked to increased levels of the substances in your blood that indicate inflammation, called “markers.” Try swapping the processed starches you typically eat for whole-grain choices — for instance, white rice for brown.
Yes, olives and olive oils are calorie dense, but eaten in moderation they provide a source of fat in your diet that actually helps your heart. These iconic foods of the Mediterranean are abundant in monounsaturated fatty acids, which lower LDL cholesterol. When choosing an olive oil, go for the extra-virgin, cold-pressed variety. “Light” olive oils have no fewer calories, just a lighter color and flavor, and typically are more processed, meaning that many of their inherently good components are lost. Toss that bottle of fat-free dressing and drizzle olive oil and vinegar over your salad instead.
Be a Little Nutty
Another way to get heart-healthy monounsaturated fats: small amounts of nuts, particularly walnuts. Walnuts not only contain heart-healthy fats — they also provide your body with vegetable protein; minerals such as manganese, magnesium and potassium; and antioxidants such as tocopherols (vitamin E) and phenolic compounds. One study showed that just one serving a day of mixed nuts is associated with lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. On top of that, they have anti-inflammatory properties: Research has shown that eating nuts lowers the number of inflammatory molecules in the bloodstream and raises levels of ’anti-inflammatory compounds — giving you a double whammy of protection. Grab a palmful of walnuts as a mid-afternoon snack, or toss them over a salad.
Reel in Fish
Seafood is a critical part of heart-healthy eating. In addition to lowering saturated fat intake, adding more fish (particularly salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines) to your diet nets you critical omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that increasing levels of omega-3s — which are necessary for the health of your cell membranes — reduces levels of inflammatory markers. Additionally, Dr. Nissen explains, omega-3 fats lower triglycerides — another form of serum lipids, or fats circulating in your blood — which tend to be elevated in people with type 2 diabetes and may play a role in plaque buildup in your arteries. A particular form of omega-3’s called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), Dr. Morledge says, can help increase HDL, or “good” cholesterol, as well. Eat fish three to four times a week — broiled salmon makes a great dinner— and consider taking DHA supplements
Put that Steak Out to Pasture
The Mediterranean diet has a lot of add-in items, but there are two major leave-out (or eat-as-little-as-possible) categories: red meat and full-fat dairy products. Both are high in saturated fat, which raises LDL cholesterol. And saturated fat does more than build up the bad stuff: Research by the Cleveland Clinic, published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology, showed that eating saturated fat actually lowers the anti-inflammatory properties of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. In other words, that saturated fat makes the good stuff less good! Eat red meat twice a month, max, and opt for low- and nonfat dairy products.
A quick, easy and heart-healthy dinner
Rinse 1 can of white (cannellini or navy) beans in cold water and drain.
Combine with one 5-ounce can of drained, water-packed tuna and ½ cup finely diced red pepper.
Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and the juice of one lemon.
Allow to marinate for 15 minutes for flavors to blend; serve over tossed greens. Serves two to three.