Some foods play very well together to boost heart health. Here are the happy couples.
Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD
When it comes to heart health, food can be your best medicine. Protecting this vital organ goes beyond avoiding unhealthy foods. To slash your risk of heart woes, it’s also important to up your intake of foods that are full of the nutrients and other compounds, such as antioxidants, that research shows can help keep your ticker beating strong for years to come. We now know a lot more about how to prevent cardiovascular disease, including both heart attacks and strokes, and it’s clear that healthy eating and living (such as getting plenty of exercise!) can make a huge difference. There are certain foods that, instead of taking a solo adventure to improve our heart health, instead, seem to perform better when set free to mingle. This is called food synergy: where the benefits of two or more foods eaten together can be greater than the sum of their parts. When working in unison, they amplify their nutritional benefits. While researchers have only just begun to untangle all the super combinations, these good-chemistry eats and sips can pack outsize benefits for the well-being of your heart.
Dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale are already nutritional heavy hitters, but if you really want to reap their rewards, make sure to fatten them up. Research shows that consuming foods such as kale, tomatoes, and carrots—good sources of carotenoid antioxidants including lycopene and beta carotene—with a dietary source of fat, such as avocado, can increase how much of these heart-friendly plant compounds we absorb.
The reason is simple: antioxidants such as lutein, lycopene, and beta carotene, which work to fend off the cell-damaging effects of circulating free radicals to help protect heart health and promote healthier aging, are fat soluble, so they are better absorbed when consumed along with a source of dietary fat. The upshot is that whenever colourful veggies are on your plate, make sure to fatten them up with healthy fat sources, including olive oil, avocado, nuts, or seeds.
A recent study in the journal Nutrients found that consuming avocado daily can help lower levels of circulating oxidized LDL (bad) cholesterol—a form of cholesterol that is particularly detrimental to heart health. The researchers credit some of this benefit to the antioxidants, including lutein, found in avocado.
While turmeric is increasingly being studied for its heart-benefitting, lipidlowering, and anti-inflammatory powers and a big reason why golden milk is trending, we don’t absorb its main bioactive compound, curcumin, into the bloodstream very well.
The good news is that a chemical found in black pepper called piperine can greatly bolster our ability to take up curcumin. Piperine could make it easier for curcumin to pass through the intestinal wall and into your bloodstream. So, whenever you add the golden spice to curries, soups, sauces, and scrambled eggs, don’t forget to also include a few twists of the pepper grinder.
An investigation in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that when people who are at risk for heart disease consumed higher amounts of spices such as turmeric for a month, they tested lower in levels of pro-inflammatory compounds, including cytokines.
Because it’s vital to transporting oxygen throughout the body to tissues, including your heart, it’s best to make sure your iron stores are well stocked. (Correcting an iron deficiency or anemia is important to improving heart function.)
A new study published in the journal ESC Heart Failure linked iron deficiency with a 24 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 26 percent higher risk of death due to cardiovascular disease compared with not having an iron deficiency.
Of course, a hunk of steak is a good source of the mineral, but you can also get iron from plant-based foods such as oats, beans, lentils, tofu, fortified cereals, and spinach. There’s a catch, though: only 2 to 20 percent of the iron found in plant foods, called non-heme iron, makes its way from your digestive tract into your blood.
Mother Nature has provided an assist in the form of vitamin C (ascorbic acid)—present in edibles such as berries, bell pepper, tomatoes, broccoli, and citrus—which converts plant-based iron into a form that is more readily absorbed.
That makes it a good idea to top a steamy bowl of oatmeal with blueberries, load up a pot of bean-based chili with chopped peppers, and serve tofu with a side of broccoli. As a bonus, oats are rich in beta-glucan fibre that can help improve cholesterol numbers.
And a study in the journal Circulation determined that women aged 25 through 42 who ate more than three servings of blueberries and strawberries a week had a 32 percent lower risk of heart attack compared with those who ate less.
As reported in the British Journal of Nutrition, women who ate iron-fortified cereal with kiwi fruit, which is especially rich in vitamin C, were able to raise their iron levels.
In recent years, the role that microbes in our gut and the metabolites they produce play in improving cardiovascular health is becoming apparent. Eating more fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, is one of the best ways to fertilize your microbiome with beneficial micro-critters for better heart and digestive health.
One way to feed these beneficial micro-organisms so they can proliferate is to supply them with a variety of different forms of dietary fibre, including pectin, found in apples. Pectin is a nondigestible soluble fibre considered a prebiotic, a.k.a. plant fibres that help healthy bacteria grow in your gut. And it’s believed that when the bugs in your digestive tract work on breaking down pectin, there’s a release of beneficial compounds such as butyrate.
Besides, one study found that healthy, middle-aged adults with a one-apple-a-day habit reduced blood levels of a substance linked to hardening of the arteries by 40 percent over four weeks. For a heart-protecting snack, top a bowl of plain yogurt with chopped apples and a few chopped nuts, or use thick Greek yogurt as a dip for apple slices.
To show your heart some love, it appears you need not settle for fat-free yogurt. New research among the world’s biggest consumers of dairy foods has shown, using blood levels of certain fatty acids, that higher intakes of dairy fat were not associated with an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
The health impact of dairy foods might be more dependent on dairy types, such as yogurt, cheese, milk, and butter, rather than the fat content, with probiotic-laced fermented options such as yogurt likely leading the way for heart health.
A practice of drinking tea daily can do your heart some good. A study in the Journal of Nutrition discovered that adults who consumed more green or black tea were, on average, more likely to have lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol; lower apoB, a type of cholesterol-containing protein that can damage arteries; and higher HDL (good) cholesterol than those who didn’t consume the ancient beverage.
It might be that the potent antioxidants, including catechins, in green tea can improve your cholesterol profile. And it turns out you can make green tea even more of an antioxidant powerhouse by adding a squirt of lemon.
Research hailing from Purdue University shows that citrus juice can increase the amount of antioxidants in green tea that are available for the body to absorb by up to five-fold. The abundance of vitamin C in lemon and other sun-kissed citrus might be behind this perk.
A study in the European Heart Journal suggests you shouldn’t follow the lead of the Brits and spike your tea with milk. The scientists discovered that adding dairy-based milk to tea blunted its cardiovascular benefits.
Casein protein in milk may bind up antioxidants in tea, rendering them less available for absorption. Milk may also inhibit tea’s ability to activate a special gene in the body that helps to open blood vessels.
According to a study in the Journal of Nutrition that attempted to rank the best pro- and anti-inflammatory foods, tomatoes top the list as the best food for fighting inflammation. They contain vitamin C and potent antioxidants such as lycopene, which has been shown to reduce inflammation.
Inflammation is a natural part of the body’s immune system, but too much of it can be harmful and even lead to chronic diseases, including heart disease, if left unchecked. Refined grains and processed meats came in as the worst food groups for inflammation—so be sure your tomato sauce is strewn over whole grain pasta.
A recent peer-reviewed study published in JAMA Network Open suggests a more manageable 7,000 steps a day could be a solid benchmark for reducing the risk by up to 70 percent for early mortality from maladies including cardiovascular disease, providing a much-needed break from the often-regurgitated and poorly validated number of 10,000.
Time in nature should be what the doctor orders for heart health. A recent investigation in the journal Environmental found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with significant health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and premature death.
“Green space” was defined as open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban settings that include urban parks and street greenery. One theory is that exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may have benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation.
Dietary choices should be one of our primary methods of combatting heart disease. But the correct supplements can provide a helping hand. These supplement pairings are more proof that two heads are better than one when it comes to heart health.
|Dynamic duos||How they work together|
|magnesium & vitamin D||One of the functions of magnesium is to regulate vitamin D in our bodies by playing a role in vitamin D synthesis and its metabolic pathways. So you need adequate amounts of magnesium to make your vitamin D supplements more effective.|
|iron & vitamin C||If your health care practitioner has advised you to use an iron supplement, taking it with vitamin C will bolster absorption rates. Some supplements also include vitamin C, or you can take your iron with a food source such as orange juice.|
|omega-3s & vitamin E||Combining omega-3 fatty acid and vitamin E supplementation can lower heart-hampering inflammation while boosting the body’s antioxidant capacity.|
|folate & vitamin B6||These two B vitamins (along with vitamin B12) work together to reduce the level of an amino acid called homocysteine that, in high levels, is thought to damage artery linings, leading to higher stroke risk.|
|vitamin K & flaxseed oil||Greater intakes of vitamin K can lower risk for cardiovascular diseases related to atherosclerosis. To bolster the absorption of fat-soluble vitamin K, pair supplements with a fat source such as a spoonful of flaxseed oil, which supplies heart-friendly omega-3 fats.|