Food For Your Heart

We all know that exercise and diet are important for good health.

But do you know which foods, in particular, help keep your heart in good shape?

Registered dietician Keri Glassman discussed them Friday as part of The Early Show's weeklong series, "Early Keeps the Beat."

According to Glassman:

You're one step ahead of the game by keeping your weight in check. But there's much more to the story than just the number on the scale.

Headlines a few years ago began the discussion about red wine protecting your heart. Then, it was about omega 3s and heart health. Now, you can't pick up a paper without reading about antioxidants and your heart. And of course, next year, it's sure to be something different.

It can be confusing to sort through all the information, especially because it's often conflicting. A healthy diet and exercise are the keys to a healthy heart. But which specific foods can we incorporate into our diet to give us the most protection?

Here are some guidelines to help you sort through the confusion and give you some "insider" tips on how to keep your heart functioning well!

Go Nuts!

Nuts are high in fat, but it's the right kind of fat for your heart. Almonds are especially heart-healthy, a convenient "on-the-go" snack, and taste great! The mono-unsaturated fat found in almonds is proven to protect against heart disease. Harvard's Nurses Health Study found that women who ate more than five ounces of nuts each week lowered their risk of heart disease by 35 percent compared to women who didn't eat nuts. Almonds also contain photo-chemicals and arginine-rich proteins, which have beneficial effects for the heart, as well. Just remember to watch your portion size -- nuts are easy to overeat; stick with 10 almonds at a time!

Go for fresh herbs and spices as opposed to processed foods

High sodium intake is related to hypertension, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Keep your blood pressure in check by limiting your sodium intake to no more than 2300 mg. per day. Don't add extra salt to food, and watch out for canned and frozen foods, which often are very high in sodium. Also, remember that many medications contain sodium, so check with your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about the medications you take. And if you thought you were being virtuous by buying the "lower sodium" version of foods, be careful: "Lower Sodium" simply means 25 percent less than the original, meaning the foods can still be high in sodium. Try experimenting with different herbs and spices instead of reaching for the salt-shaker: onions, garlic, lemons, parsley, thyme, basil, mint, vinegars and pepper are all great things to try on a variety of foods for extra flavor.

Go Exotic!

Ever head of mangosteen? Mangosteen is a fruit originating in Southeast Asia and contains xanthones, a group of extremely powerful antioxidants that are rarely found in fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, they're found in high amounts in the tropical fruit mangosteen!

Guava is another exotic fruit that's especially high in the antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene has been shown to decrease the buildup of plaque on the walls of arteries. Studies have shown that consuming high amounts of lycopene may cut the risk of heart disease by as much as 50 percent! Acai is a rich source of anthocyanins and other phenolics and phyto-nutrients.

Acai berries are among the most nutritious foods of the Amazon, rich in B vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Acai berries also contain oleic acid (omega-9), a beneficial fatty acid (often mistakenly referred to as essential).

Navigate your way through fats: "You can't live with 'em, you can't live without 'em"

Saturated and trans-fats (found in meats, egg yolks, whole-milk dairy products, baked goods, fried foods and more) raise blood cholesterol, increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease. So, it's a no-brainer to cut these out, or at least limit saturated fat to no more than seven percent of your total calorie intake each day. But don't get rid of fats altogether; replace the "bad" fats with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, like the ones in nuts, and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3s can reduce your "bad cholesterol" and increase your "good" cholesterol. Good sources of omega 3s are fresh water fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week.

Grapes, and more!

The "French Paradox" refers to the lower rates of heart disease in French people despite a diet that includes lots of rich, creamy foods (saturated fat) and, often, cigarettes. Researchers hypothesize/believe that the compounds found in red wine (which the French often drink) fight the "bad" effects of smoking and red meat. This is due in part to two powerful phyto-nutrients found in wine: quercitin and resveratrol. In addition, there may soon be more good news about grapes! Recent research has shown that resveratrol has been identified as an activator of an enzyme that is responsible for the extension of lifespan in many species when they're placed on calorie-restricted diets. This is very new research done on microorganisms, but the excellent mix of many phyto-nutrients does explain why grapes (and foods made from grapes) have potent anti-inflammatory properties and protection from oxidative stress damage. So, we know that grapes help protect our hearts -- but it turns out they may help us look better, as well!
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