4 Surprising but Essential Steps Toward Heart Health
February is not only filled with heart-shaped chocolate boxes and heartfelt gifts to your loved ones, it’s also national Heart Health month. With all things ‘heart’ packed into this month, it’s only appropriate to talk about what you can do to nourish your heart; both with good food and good intention.
Aside from the go-to heart-healthy foods like whole grains and omega 3’s, there are so many important things to do for your heart, some of which are little-known surprising factors that are easy to change or incorporate on a daily basis.
The health of your heart is not dependent on just how much fat you consume or exercise you get, but a whole range of factors that contribute to its function. So, in addition to eating well, living well and doing well, here are 4 surprising but essential things you can do to improve your heart health this month and for many more to come!
1. Keep your liver healthy: Your liver is the purification system for all the blood in your body. When your liver isn’t healthy, everything downstream of it is impacted, including the heart. “Stagnancy”, as it is called in Eastern medicine practices, or a slow or low functioning liver can cause toxins that would normally be purified from the bloodstream to continue to flow throughout the body, impacting the function of all organs and systems the toxic blood supplies. Help improve and maintain the health of your liver by consuming more organic, unrefined and primarily raw plant foods that are rich in minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Liver health is also impacted by sleep and stress, so healthy management techniques of both are important. Swap a bag of chips for apple slices, add more leafy green vegetables to your diet, drink a cup of green tea instead of coffee and eat more fresh citrus like grapefruits, lemons and limes, all are good liver-cleansing foods.
2. Eat cholesterol in whole foods: Shunning cholesterol entirely, by avoiding any food that contains fat, is not the answer to long-term heart health. Experts are now pointing to an individual’s metabolism (how the body makes, uses and stores things) as the root cause of cholesterol level in the body. Cholesterol is actually beneficial for brain cell development and overall health, as long as it is consumed in whole food sources where nutrients, enzymes and minerals accompany it. The problem is not cholesterol, but the over-consumption of cholesterol-dense and processed foods that don’t contain the nutrients your body needs to digest, process and store it more efficiently. Your brain and heart run on fat and extremely low-fat diets may significantly compromise their function. Many cholesterol rich foods like liver, shrimp, butter and eggs also offer an array of health properties that your body can benefit from.
3. Get your daily dose of B vitamins: B vitamins play a huge role in maintaining low levels of homocysteine in the body. Homocysteine’s normal role is to control growth and support tissue formation but without regulation by B vitamins its levels increase and can damages the cells and elasticity of arterial walls. Because of this, the presence of excess homocysteine has been linked to high triglyceride levels and LDL’s, which contribute to the clogging of arteries. A diet low in B vitamins, can therefore become a risk factor for heart disease. Processed foods are one of the primary reasons for the increasing levels of homocysteine in our bodies because of their high sugar and white flour content, which are major culprits in B vitamin depletion. Adding more B vitamins from whole foods like fish, dairy, whole grains, lentils, leafy greens, nuts, eggs, squash and bananas can help keep your homocysteine levels low, while also benefiting your energy production.
4. Choose the right dairy: Again, fat is not always your enemy. In the case of dairy products, fat is actually essential in order for your body to absorb nutrients like vitamins A and D. Fat free and low-fat dairy products have also been highly processed in order to reach a desired fat content, which invariably has negative impacts on their once-healthy properties. However, it’s not just the fat percentage, but also the milk quality that makes a difference. Industrial milk is drastically different than traditionally produced milk in that it comes from cows raised on corn and soy, which contribute different, if not less, nutrients to the milk they produce. In her book Real Food: What to Eat and Why Nina Planck points out that “Compared to industrial milk, dairy foods from grass-fed cows contain more omega-3 fats, more vitamin A and more beta-carotene and other antioxidants. Butter and cream from grass-fed cows are a rare source of the unique and beneficial fat CLA. According to the Journal of Dairy Science, the CLA in grass-fed butterfat is 500 percent greater than the butterfat of cows eating a typical dairy ration…CLA prevents heart disease, fights cancer and builds lean muscle” (Planck, 68). Consider choosing moderate portions of full-fat dairy products from grass-fed and organically raised cows for the full heart-healthy benefits!
Planck, Nina. Real Food: What to Eat and Why. New York City, New York: Bloomsbury, 2006
Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2002