Saturday, May 21, 2016

20 of the Most Powerful Heart Foods on the Planet

Or, What Should You Eat After a Century of Processed Food?

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

A vintage joke goes: An old man in a supermarket asks for help from one of the assistants. The assistant says, "Sir, at your age you will no doubt want all the freshest and healthiest foods." The old man answers: "Forget the health food. At my age, I need all the preservatives I can get." The joke might generate a laugh, but not that long ago, the idea of preservatives, additives and chemicals in food created much less alarm than it does today. The 1900s to 1990s was a century of incredible advancements in food processing and automation, and the consumer was the focus of a food modification industry without par in human history. The first flour bleaching agent was developed in the 1900s. Trans fats were marketed in the 1910s. Brine injection and rapid freezing technologies emerged in the 1930s. Meat preservatives, vegetable freeze drying and flour additives or 'improvers' were developed in the following decade.1

Processed Food Mania
From the 1950s onwards, the processed food industry went into overdrive: all manner of canned, instant, frozen and pre-cooked foods flooded supermarkets, accompanied with a boom in television food commercials targeting the postwar housewife.2 These ad campaigns "made processed foods seem better than fresh ones."3 The 1950s to 1990s were a time of food processing and preservation technologies designed to take the stress, labour and mess away from the preparation of food, thereby specifically appealing to the homemaker who made the family's food choices.

Packaged Heart Disease
The end of the 20th century, however, also witnessed increasing consumer concern over the safety of food technologies and the environment.4 There was mounting evidence about the dangers of saturated fats, trans fats, processed foods, refined sugar and bleached flours. By the 21st century, in the United States, "chronic illnesses and health problems either wholly or partially attributable to diet represent[ed] by far the most serious threat to public health."5 These so-called 'diseases of civilisation' included obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and cancer, with an estimated one-third of all cancer deaths attributed to nutritional factors, including obesity.6 According to the World Health Organisation, cardiovascular disease is now the leading cause of death for men and women globally.7

Back to Green
Today, the appeal of processed and modified foods has diminished. Mounting evidence of the negative effect of processed foods is encouraging growing numbers of food manufacturers to reduce salt, sugar and fat in their products. Saturated fats and trans fats are now recognised to increase cardiovascular disease risk, as does highly processed foods. As cardiologist Arthur Agatston points out, "In traditional societies, where people don't eat processed foods, heart disease is rare."8 Consumers are beginning to seek out healthier foods, with less processing and fewer additives. After a century of experiencing the most highly processed foodstuffs humans have ever known in history, people are starting to reassess their diets.

Here, then, are 20 of the most powerful foods known to contain benefits for your heart, arteries and health.

The A-List of 20 Heart Healthy Foods


Blueberries top the list as one of the most powerful disease-fighting and cardiovascular-friendly foods. They have been shown to reduce blood pressure and arterial stiffness, and may improve or prevent pathologies associated with the metabolic syndrome, including diabetes and coronary heart disease. They are rich in phytochemicals called polyphenols, which have protective health benefits, and anthocyanins, the antioxidant which gives the fruit its dark blue colour.9,10,11

Seeds and Nuts
Nuts and seeds contain phytosterols, a group of chemicals which have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of some types of cancer. Among commonly available seeds and nuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds had the highest levels of phytosterols, followed by pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, black walnuts, pecans, cashews, peanuts and hazelnuts. Many seeds and nuts also contain high levels of oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.12,13

Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest of oils to add to your diet. It has high levels of heart-healthy monounsaturated oleic acid, an essential fatty acid proven to have positive effects on cholesterol levels, oxidative stress in the bloodstream, and cardiovascular health.14,15

Sardines have some of the highest omega-3 fatty acids levels of any coldwater oily fish. These 'good' fats help raise protective HDL levels, lower harmful triglycerides, and are beneficial to heart and artery health.16

Coldwater Oily Fish
Like sardines, coldwater oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, bluefish, halibut all contain concentrated levels of protective omega-3 acids and healthy polyunsaturated fats.

Salads with Olive Oil
Scientists now believe it is the combination of olive oil with salad or vegetables that gives the Mediterranean diet its heart-healthy reputation. The unsaturated fat in olive oil combines with the nitrite in nuts, vegetables and avocado to produce protective, heart-healthy nitro-fatty acids. Nitro-fatty acids lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease by blocking a potentially dangerous enzyme called epoxide hydrolase.17


Garlic is often called a 'superfood' for its disease-fighting qualities. Research suggests that garlic can help lower LDL levels as well as an enzyme called angiotensin, which constricts blood vessels, and has significant impact on the buildup of plaque in the arteries.18,19,20

Green Tea
Studies have found that green tea helps lower LDL ('bad') cholesterol and triglycerides. It contains powerful antioxidants, including catechins, which are plant phenols which reduce the absorption of cholesterol during digestion, and epigallocatechin gallate, which helps prevent atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the arteries.21,22

Broccoli helps prevent calcification, or hardening of the arteries, and oxidation of LDL cholesterol. It is packed with antioxidants, vitamin K, and heart-healthy fibre which helps to normalise blood pressure and plaque build up in the arteries.23

Oats is full of viscous fibre, also known as soluble fibre, which helps to lower LDL and total cholesterol. The viscous fibre also encourages a good balance of colonic bacteria. The beta glucans in oats can also help to prevent absorption of cholesterol from food.24,25,26

Oranges have been shown by recent research to be a powerful heart food. It contains citrus pectin, which helps neutralise a protein called galectin-3 which causes scarring of heart tissue and eventually leads to congestive heart failure. This condition is often difficult to treat with drugs. In addition, the soluble fibre pectin acts like a sponge, soaking up cholesterol in food and blocking its absorption by the body -- the same effect produced by a class of drugs called bile acid sequestrants.27

Kale is a heart superfood. It boasts high levels of heart-healthy antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, fibre, folate, potassium and vitamin E. It is also rich in lutein, which helps protect against early atherosclerosis. In addition, it contains an unusual compound called glucoraphanin, which activates a protective protein called Nrf2, which, as Eat to Live author Dr Joel Fuhrman describes, "creates a sort of Teflon coating in your arteries to keep plaque from adhering."28

Red Wine

Red wine contains powerful compounds called polyphenols, which help keep blood vessels flexible and reduce the risk of unwanted clotting.29 Also called procyanidins, these polyphenols were found in levels two to four times higher in red wine from Sardinia and the Gers region of the Midi-Pyrenees in south-west France, both areas famous for the longevity of their population.30

Dark Chocolate
The high cocoa content in dark chocolate is a cardiovascular ally. Cocoa is rich in compounds called flavanols, which improve blood vessel flexibility. The Kuna Indians off the coast of Panama consume enormous quantities of minimally processed cocoa. As a result, they have enviably low blood pressure, and unlike most other people, they do not develop hypertension as they age.31

Scientists have found that pomegranates can significantly reduce oxidative stress in the arterial walls. They are rich in polyphenolic antioxidants, which not only help to block the progression of plaque, but may actually help reverse plaque buildup, by activating an enzyme which breaks down oxidized cholesterol. A recent Israel Institute of Technology study has shown that consuming a combination of pomegranate juice and dates, another cardiovascular ally, produces a combined effect more powerful than either fruit on its own.32,33

Like pomegranates, dates contain superior cardiovascular benefits. They contain high concentrations of phenolic radical scavenger antioxidants, inhibit the oxidation of LDL ('bad') cholesterol and stimulate the removal of cholesterol from lipid-laden arterial cells. In a recent Israel Institute of Technology study, scientists found that a combination of dates and pomegranate juice reduced oxidative stress in the arterial wall by 33% and decreased arterial cholesterol content by 28%.34

Studies have shown that daily consumption of avocado can decrease triglycerides and LDL ('bad') cholesterol by up to 22%, and increase HDL ('good') cholesterol by up to 11%.35 With the highest levels of healthy unsaturated fat of any fruit apart from coconut, avocados are a nutrient-dense food, with approximately 4 grams of protein and 11 grams of fibre per avocado, and nearly 20 vitamins and minerals.36,37


Research has shown that eating spices such as turmeric, paprika, rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and garlic powder with your meals can lower triglyceride levels by up to 30%. The high antioxidant levels of spices help mitigate oxidative stress, which has been linked to heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.38,39

Spinach is loaded with fibre, potassium and folate, which help lower blood pressure and lower homosysteine levels, both risk factors for cardiovascular disease.40

Soy Protein
Soy protein, made from soy beans, has numerous benefits for the cardiovascular system. It is a quality plant protein which contains fibre, vitamins, minerals and healthy polyunsaturated fats, which help lower triglycerides.41

1Food processing: a century of change, R.W. Welch & P.C. Mitchell, British Medical Bulletin, 2000, 56 (No 1) 1-17

2Why the fries taste good, E. Schlosser, Food, Inc.

3Why the fries taste good, E. Schlosser, Food, Inc.

4Food processing: a century of change, R.W. Welch & P.C. Mitchell, British Medical Bulletin, 2000, 56 (No 1) 1-17

5Origins and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st century, Loren Cordain, et al, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 2005

6Origins and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st century, Loren Cordain, et al, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 2005

7Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), World Health Organisation

89 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood,

9Health benefits of wild blueberries abound, Science Daily

10Blueberries may help reduce blood pressure and arterial stiffness, Science Daily

115 Heart-healthy Foods, WebMD

12Pistachios Pummel Cholesterol, WebMD

13Monounsaturated Fats, American Heart Association

14Bioactive effects of olive oil phenolic compounds in humans: reduction of heart disease factors and oxidative damage, M.I. Covas

15Olive oil consumption, plasma oleic acid, and stroke incidence: the Three-City study, C. Samieri, PubMed

169 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood,

17Olive oil and salad combined 'explain' Med diet success, BBC News

189 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood,

19Garlic for treating hypercholesterolemia, C. Stevinson, PubMed

20Is Garlic good for you? 7 surprising benefits of garlic for optimal health, Lizette Borreli, Medical Daily

2121 foods that naturally unclog arteries, Natural Living Ideas

227 Teas that can help or harm your heart, Debbie Strong, Everyday Health

2321 foods that naturally unclog arteries, Natural Living Ideas

24Beta-glucans, WebMD

25A soluble fiber primer -- plus the top five foods that can lower LDL cholesterol, Judith C. Thalheimer, Today's Dietician, Vol 15 No.12, p16

26Major Cereal Grain Fibres and Psyllium in relation to cardiovascular health, Adam M. Bernstein, Nutrients 2013, 5(5), 1471-1487

279 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood,

289 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood,

299 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood,

30Red wine health locations found, BBC News

319 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood,

329 Superfoods for your heart, Anne Underwood,

33Pomegranate and Dates for Life, Israel Institute of Technology

34Pomegranate and Dates for Life, Israel Institute of Technology

35Monounsaturated fatty acid (avocado) rich diet for mild hypercholesterolemia, Ledesma R. Lopez, PubMed

3621 foods that naturally unclog arteries, Natural Living Ideas

37Avocados: Health Benefits, Nutritional Information, Megan Ware, MedicalNewsToday

38Spice Things Up to Lower Triglycerides, J. Dalessio, Everyday Health

39A high antioxidant spice blend attenuates postprandial insulin and triglyceride responses and increases some plasma measures of antioxidant activity in healthy, overweight men, AC Skulas-Ray, et al, Journal of Nutrition, Aug 2011

4021 foods that naturally unclog arteries, Natural Living Ideas

415 Heart-healthy Foods, WebMD

Other Sources

Combining key ingredients of vegetarian diet cuts cholesterol significantly, says study, Science Daily

Diet that combines cholesterol-lowering foods results in greater decrease in LDL than low-saturated fat diet, study finds, Science Daily

Effect of a dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods given at 2 levels of intensity of dietary advice on serum lipids in hyperlipidemia, David JA Jenkins, et al, Journal of the American Medical Association

Eating heart healthy: Which foods actually help?, Sara Miller, Live Science

The Best Heart-Friendly Foods, Everyday Health

Monday, May 16, 2016

What is Cholesterol?

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

You cannot live without cholesterol. It is present in your blood and every cell of your body, and your body needs it in order to function normally. It also needs it to make hormones, Vitamin D and bile for digestion. Known as a lipid, cholesterol is a fatty substance which comes from two sources: your body and your food. While cholesterol is produced in the liver for the body's needs, it is also present in food from animal sources, such as meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Eggs, offal and shellfish are also rich in cholesterol. Although your body can make all the cholesterol it needs, the liver produces more cholesterol when your diet is high in saturated and trans fats. The effects of excess cholesterol can cause serious health problems. Because cholesterol cannot dissolve in blood, it has to be carried to and from cells by carriers called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are little packages are made of fat (lipid) on the inside and proteins on the outside, and there are two kinds: low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). In recent years, LDL has become regarded as 'bad' cholesterol, while HDL has been called the 'good' cholesterol. We are going to take a closer look at these types of cholesterol and their function in your body.

LDL Cholesterol
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) carries cholesterol to the cells in your body which need it. If there is too much cholesterol for your cells to use, this excess cholesterol can build up in the artery walls, leading to plaque and disease of the arteries. Plaque is a thick, hard deposit that can clog arteries and make them less flexible, resulting in a condition called atherosclerosis. Plaque can also break open and cause blood clots. If a blood clot blocks an artery to either the brain or the heart, the result is a stroke or a heart attack. Therefore, too much LDL cholesterol is unhealthy, and LDL is known as 'bad' cholesterol for this reason. A diet high in saturated fat and trans fat raises LDL cholesterol. As a general guide, LDL levels should be 3 mmol/L or less for healthy adults, and 2 mmol/L or less for those at high risk.

HDL Cholesterol
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) carries cholesterol away from your cells and arteries back to your liver, where it is broken down and passed from the body. One-fourth to one-third of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL. Low levels of HDL cholesterol have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, while healthy levels of HDL cholesterol may protect against cardiovascular disease. For these reasons, HDL is regarded as 'good' protective cholesterol, and higher levels are better. In general, HDL levels should be above 1 mmol/L. Lower levels can increase the risk of heart disease.

So Why Should You Lower Your Cholesterol?
There is strong evidence that high cholesterol increases the risk of:

  • Artherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries from plaque buildup
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Transient ischaemic attack (TIA), or a 'mini stroke'
  • Peripheral arterial disease (PAD), or the narrowing of arteries supplying blood to the legs, from plaque buildup

What Causes High Cholesterol?
Many factors can play a part in causing high cholesterol. Lifestyle, underlying conditions and 'fixed' factors which cannot be changed, all contribute.

Lifestyle factors contributing to high cholesterol:

  • An unhealthy diet, particularly one high in saturated fat and trans fats.
  • Obesity. Being overweight can lead to higher levels of LDL cholesterol, and lower levels of HDL cholesterol.
  • Lack of exercise or physical activity. This can increase your levels of LDL cholesterol.
  • Smoking. Cigarettes contain a chemical called acrolein which stops HDL from carrying cholesterol from fatty deposits to the liver, which can lead to artherosclerosis.
  • Drinking

Underlying conditions contributing to high cholesterol:

  • Diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Hypothyroidism

Fixed factors contributing to high cholesterol:

  • A family history of heart disease or stroke.
  • An inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia, which can cause high cholesterol in someone even if they eat healthily.
  • A family history of a cholesterol-related condition, such as having a parent, brother or sister with familial hypercholesterolaemia.
  • Age. The older you are, the greater the likelihood of artherosclerosis.
  • Ethnicity. People of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan descent are at increased risk of having a heart attack.
  • Sex. Males are more likely to have heart attacks than females.

Consequently, lowering your cholesterol levels will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and improve your health. High cholesterol is often known as the 'silent killer' because there can be little or no indication of it. It is important to get your cholesterol levels checked regularly, and to do as much as you can to keep your cholesterol at a healthy level. Here are 6 tips on how to lower your cholesterol:

  1. Get expert advice. Your doctor can help you with a plan for a heart-healthy diet and exercise.
  2. Eat healthily. Eat less saturated fat and trans fat. Increase your intake of fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds and fibre.
  3. Give up smoking. Your HDL levels will improve as a direct result.
  4. Exercise. Physical activity lowers bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol.
  5. Take your medications. If your doctor has prescribed medicine to lower your cholesterol, do not forget to take it.
  6. Try supplements. Fish oil, krill oil, fibre and soy protein supplements can lower LDL cholesterol. Ask your doctor if supplements may help you.

About cholesterol, American Heart Association
Cholesterol - the silent killer, Heart UK
Good vs. Bad Cholesterol, American Heart Association
High cholesterol, National Health Service
The myth of dietary cholesterol, Heart UK
Tips to keep your cholesterol in check, WebMD
What is cholesterol?, National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute
What your cholesterol levels mean, American Heart Association

Images Source: Pixabay

Friday, May 13, 2016

How Triglycerides Affect Your Health

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

This slippery-sounding part of your body is one of your most important indicators of heart health. Triglycerides are a type of fat, or lipid, which circulates in your bloodstream. When you eat a meal, your body converts any calories it does not immediately need into triglycerides. These triglycerides get dumped into your bloodstream, and later, stored in your fat cells. After an especially fatty meal, triglycerides can be so abundant in your blood that they give the blood a milky tint. Triglyceride levels are usually measured at the same time as blood cholesterol levels, and together with your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, present a 'read-out' of the state of your cardiovascular health. High triglycerides often go hand in hand with low HDL levels ('good' cholesterol); in fact, the higher the triglycerides, the lower the HDL. Raised triglycerides is a risk factor not only for heart disease, but for obesity, pancreatitis and type 2 diabetes.

Triglyceride levels are ordered in four categories of health:

  • Normal: below 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL), or less than 1.7 millimoles per liter (mmol/L)
  • Borderline High: 150 to 199 mg/dL (1.8 to 2.2 mmol/L)
  • High: 200 to 499 mg/dL (2.3 to 5.6 mmol/L)
  • Very High: 500 mg/dL or above (5.7 mmol/L or above)

So how do you lower your triglyceride levels? Healthy lifestyle choices are the key.

Avoid bad fats. Replace saturated fats (in red meat and full-fat dairy products) and trans fats (usually found in restaurant fried foods and commercially prepared baked goods) with healthy unsaturated fats. Go for seeds, nuts, avocados and plant-based oils such as olive, sunflower and canola, and eat oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, tuna and salmon.

Choose good carbs. Easily digested carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, cornflakes, white-flour baked goods and sugary drinks raise triglyceride levels, so reduce your intake of sugar and refined foods.

Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol can have a particularly potent effect on triglycerides, with even small amounts raising triglyceride levels.

Lose weight. If you are overweight, losing just 5% to 10% of your weight can drop your triglyceride levels.

Exercise regularly. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. Exercise lowers triglycerides and boosts 'good' HDL cholesterol.

Use spices in your food. Research has shown that eating spices such as turmeric, paprika, rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and garlic powder can lower triglyceride levels.


A promising new treatment for high triglycerides, G. Curfman, Harvard Health Publications
Spice Things Up to Lower Triglycerides, J. Dalessio, Everyday Health
A high antioxidant spice blend attenuates postprandial insulin and triglyceride responses and increases some plasma measures of antioxidant activity in healthy, overweight men, AC. Skulas-Ray, et al., Journal of Nutrition, Aug 2011
Triglycerides: Why do they matter?, Mayo Clinic
Triglycerides, Heart UK

Photos from Pixabay.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Ugly, the Bad and the Good about Fats

Contributing Author: The Tortoise

In Monday's post, we talked about the different kinds of fats, and the three categories of them. There is good news and bad news about fats. Today, let's start off with the bad news and end on a better note.

Fats can be divided into 'good' or 'bad' fats, depending on whether they help or harm the body. Saturated fats and trans fats are considered 'bad' fats because they cause changes to your body which increase cardiovascular risks. Saturated fats increase LDL ('bad' cholesterol) and triglyceride levels (a type of fat converted from excess calories and stored in the fat cells), raise your blood pressure, and narrow your blood vessels1. Trans fat, or partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil, is considered to be even worse for your health, because it raises your 'bad' (LDL) cholesterol while lowering your 'good' (HDL) cholesterol, a combination which increases the risk of heart disease even more2.

The Bad News Boys: Saturated and Trans Fats

Some Saturated Fats
These foods contain higher levels of 'bad' fats. You should be careful to moderate your intake of them.

Foods with Higher Levels of Saturated Fat

  • Beef, Pork, Lamb, Goat meat
  • Full-fat milk, Full-fat cheese, Butter
  • Chicken thighs, Chicken skin
  • Coconut oil, Palm oil

Foods with Partially Hydrogenated Oil, a Source of Trans Fat

  • Baked goods containing shortening (cakes, cookies, pies, crackers)
  • Ready-made frosting
  • Snack foods (such as microwave popcorn), Potato crisps
  • Non-dairy creamers, Margarines
  • Any food fried in partially-hydrogenated oil

When information came to light about the health effects of trans fat on people, some producers of these foods developed new, trans fat free, formulations of their products.

Ready For Some Good News?

Avocado, a Good Fat
Unsaturated fats are the good guys here, having been shown to lower blood pressure, improve lipid levels, decrease LDL ('bad' cholesterol) and increase HDL ('good' cholesterol), all of which improve cardiovascular health3. Studies also suggest that eating unsaturated fats, or 'good' fats, may decrease the risk of type-2 diabetes4. We are encouraged to choose more of these fats.

Foods with High Levels of ‘Good’ Fats

  • Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, corn oil
  • Sesame seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios
  • Salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, trout, sardines, bluefish, halibut
  • Avocados, soybeans

1 Good Fats, Bad Fats, Eleanor Roberts
2 Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health, Mayo Clinic
3 Good Fats, Bad Fats, Eleanor Roberts
4 Dietary Fats: Know which types to choose, Mayo Clinic

Good Fats, Bad Fats, Eleanor Roberts
Foods High in Unsaturated Fat, Alia Butler,
Eating Fish for Heart Health, American Heart Association
Polyunsaturated Fats, American Heart Association

Photos from Pixabay.