February offers a variety of hardy eating opportunities, with Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras and those snack-filled tv nights in front of the Superbowl or the Oscars. In addition to these occasions for special feasts, February is also Heart Healthy Month. So while chocolates and candy tend to our hearts symbolically this month, the following foods will help keep it healthy and strong all year long.
A key heart-healthy nutrient is omega-3 fatty acids. What’s important about these essential fatty acids is that you obtain them in the correct ratio of omega 3, 6 and 9. Since the typically Western diet is (overly) abundant in omega-6, the simplified nutrition advice is add omega-3s to your diet.
Though they vary somewhat depending on their source, omega-3s can be obtained from both animal and plant foods. Some of the richest sources include wild Alaskan salmon (farmed salmon does not offer the same benefit), tuna and other cold-water fish, pasture-raised meat, organic grass-fed dairy and organic pastured eggs. Good plant-based sources include flaxseed (which should be ground in order to enjoy their nutritional goodness), other nuts and seeds, and purslane.
Beans are a great source of plant-based, nutrient-dense, fiber-rich, inexpensive heart support. Adding beans to salads, soups, stews, making dips and spreads for sandwiches, (and making heart-shaped black bean brownies) allows you to enjoy bountiful fiber (good for cholesterol-lowering and blood sugar balancing), folate, manganese, magnesium, and very low-fat protein. Soy bean products, such as tofu, tempeh and natto offer similar benefits.
Whole grains such as brown rice, oat groats, wheat berries, amaranth, buckwheat, millet and quinoa provide beneficial fiber, B vitamins, and minerals such as magnesium, manganese, selenium and potassium. Be aware of the growing selection of supermarket packages claiming “whole grain” status. The best nutrition comes from grains which are indeed whole.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly the large array of colorful ones (broccoli, spinach, winter squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries, papaya, cantaloupe, etc.) contain heart-healthy antioxidants which help protect blood vessels and lower blood pressure.
Black and green tea contain some of the same healthful antioxidants.
There are several established heart-healthy diets, such as Dr. Andrew Weil’s Anti-inflammatory diet, which suggests many of the same foods, since inflammation is a leading cause of heart and blood vessel issues.
Dr. Esselstyn claims his no-oil, plant-based approach will leave you “heart attack proof.” Former President Bill Clinton adopted this diet after his heart surgery.
The Dr. Dean Ornish Spectrum also recommends a mostly plant-based, very low oil diet, but is not quite as strict.
And to keep things interesting, a new study shines the light on a more Mediterranean-style diet, including a significant daily helping of olive oil, nuts and fatty fish for optimal heart health.
What these dietary programs (and this is by no means a complete list) have in common is a focus on fresh whole foods with a high intake of vegetables and fruit, and very low (if any) consumption of processed and sweetened foods. Unless you find the most recent study definitive, the amount and type of animal foods (meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) as well as the amount of oil in a heart-healthy diet seems to still be keeping researchers busy.