Heart-Healthy Foods

Health, Home & Family
on August 25, 2002

The numbers haven't changed much: For more than a century, heart disease has ranked as America's No. 1 killer, accounting for 41 percent of our nation's annual deaths.

The figures are daunting, but take heart. You can actively reduce your risk of heart disease by altering your diet to reduce the amount of saturated fat (which raises cholesterol) and increase heart-friendly foods. Add the following foods to your diet to protect your heart without skipping a beat.

Fiber. Simply put, foods containing fiber decrease blood cholesterol levels. "They're also good because if you're eating a lot of (fiber-rich) foods then you're probably not eating a lot of foods with animal fat, which is the primary contributor of saturated fat," says Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, vice chairwoman of the American Heart Associations nutrition committee and professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston.

Whole grains, legumes and whole fruits and vegetables are the best fiber sources. Good fiber fruits include strawberries, citrus fruits and apples. Fiber-rich vegetables include cabbage, beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts, turnips and cauliflower.

Soy. Like fiber, soy lowers cholesterol, although to a lesser extent. Good sources of soy are, of course, soybeans. But a trip to the supermarket reveals todays growing assortment of soy products, giving consumers a variety of choices far beyond a big pot of beans.

For instance, tempeh and miso are made of fermented soybeans. Tempeh patties are excellent when baked or grilled with marinades. Miso, a paste, is used in soups and salad dressings.

Soy milk can be substituted for regular milk, and soy flour partially can replace white flour in baked goods. Tofu–curd made from soybeans that absorbs the flavors of the foods with which it is cooked–can be added to a multitude of recipes. Its texture makes it a good replacement for ground meat.

Fish. Salmon, mackerel, tuna and swordfish–known as oily fish–provide the best health benefit because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat.

"Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids and fish are associated with decreased risk of heart disease, and probably in that case it has to do with preventing arrhythmias, which is a misfiring of the impulses in the heart," Lichtenstein says. "Blood clots also are less likely to form with a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids," she adds.

She recommends eating at least two meals of fishany kind of fish, because theyre low fatper week. As for fiber and soy, no serving amount has been established, though government recommendations are on the horizon, Lichtenstein says.

Dietary supplements containing fiber, soy, and fish oils do exist, but the American Heart Association does not advocate them.

"It goes back to the whole diet, and if you're eating a diet that's high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, then you're not eating other (less healthful) things," Lichtenstein says. "If you just rely on a supplement, you're still eating the other things and you may not get the benefit from it."