The Science Behind Heart Health

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hearthealth As a dietetic intern, my whole life revolves around nutrition and health information.  I’m always trying to stay on top of the latest studies, recommendations, news and events.  Each day brings new facts to remember.  Lucky for me, the entire month of February has been dedicated as National Heart Health Month!  Already devoted to pretty much anything heart-shaped for Valentine’s Day, its only fitting to make February the Heart Health Month.   During this month, many nutrition and health professionals try to raise more awareness to heart disease risk factors and the prevention methods.  And there is SO much information out there, it’s hard not to come across something on the news or in the paper related to heart health.  My post last Friday reviewed the basic prevention methods and risk factors and hopefully provided you with some easy-to-understand information and tips.  Of course each prevention tip can be expanded upon and many details added.

So as an “almost-dietitian”, I thought it’d be fitting to do just that!  Today I will expand upon one of my favorite subjects, healthy foods!  The following list reviews different foods that have been shown to be beneficial to your heart.  They aren’t superfoods, just good ones to eat on a regular basis to maintain heart health or even kick you up a few notches on the heart health scale.  I haven’t listed individual foods, just their specific ingredient or compound that makes them “heart healthy.”

  • Healthy Fats – we’ve all heard this one before.  Heart healthy fats are the mono- and poly-unsaturated fats – like those omega-3 fats.  These types of fats are found in fish (like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines), nuts (especially walnuts), avocados, seeds, and olive oil.  Omega 3 fats in particular, are great for heart health because they are thought to reduce inflammation in the throughout the body, reduce blood clotting and decrease triglyceride levels(1).  In addition, unlike saturated fats (like butter), omega-3 fats are kinked – meaning they do not lie flat and are liquid at room temp (like olive oil).  When you’re thinking about the types of fat that can clog arteries…is it the thick solid saturated fats?  Or the smoother, liquid unsaturated fats?
  • Fiber Rich Foods – you might not initially associate high fiber foods and decreased heart disease risk.  But take a quick look again at the risks for heart disease – high cholesterol is listed first.  Lowering you cholesterol can help reduce your overall risk.  So that’s where fiber comes in.  (Foods like whole grains, fruits and veggies are great sources of fiber).  I personally find this next bit of info I’m giving you, EXTREMELY cool (though nobody else really does).  Here’s how fiber reduces cholesterol:  In the digestion of foods, your body uses this stuff called bile (the nasty green stuff typically associated with vomit) to break down different types of food properly.  In order to make bile, your body literally snags cholesterol molecules out of your blood stream, changes them around a bit, and makes bile.  When you eat fiber, the molecules of fiber attach to molecules of bile.  This renders the bile ineffective at digestion and it gets excreted out of the body unused (see where this is going?).  So your body thinks…hey!  I’m running low on bile stores, lets grab a few more of those cholesterol molecules from the bloodstream to start manufacturing more bile.  Thus…fiber lowers cholesterol!  So cool, right?!
  • Red Wine – this is exciting isn’t it?  I know a certain Aunt and Uncle will be thrilled to see this listed!  But seriously, it’s actually got 2 specific benefits to it.  #1:  reservatrol.  It’s a compound found in the skins of red grapes (so no, white wine doesn’t fall into this category) called a polyphenol.  Studies have shown that this particular compound may protect the lining of blood vessels.  #2:  more research has shown that a small bit of alcohol (this is any type now) can reduce your risk of heart disease by increasing your good HDL cholesterol, preventing blood clots and protecting the lining of the blood vessels from bad LDL cholesterol (2).  Also small amounts of alcohol reduce homocysteine levels in the blood (this is an amino acid).  This is good because elevated levels of this amino acid are associated with increased risk of heart disease.  However, this is not to say, by any means, go drink a bottle of red wine.  A glass every now and again is appropriate – the risks associated with higher alcohol consumption outweigh any benefits it may provide.
  • Antioxidant Rich Fruits/Veggies – Just what you wanted to hear right?  Shove down another cup of those veggies!  Even though veggies may not be the most exciting part of your diet, they do have some pretty exciting things going on.  Fruits and vegetables are filled with things called antioxidants.  These compounds play a really important role in your body.  Naturally, you build up what’s called free radicals – just singlet oxygen particles.  These basically wreak havoc in your body – damaging pretty much anything they touch.  In particular if they get in contact with LDL particles, they oxidize them which makes them more toxic and increases plaque formation in the blood vessels (3).  ANTIoxidents obviously do the opposite.  They prevent free radicals from oxidizing LDL particles and stimulate the lining of the blood vessels to relax and reduce the risk for clots.

Whew…that was like re-hashing my biochem class!  I hope that this wasn’t too overwhelming.  I just always like to the know the “why” behind different health recommendations.  They just seem to make more sense to me that way.  What do you think?  Is the science interesting to you?  Or do you just like the check-list of items to eat?  Let me know your comments!




  1. CJ at Food Stories

    February 8, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Great post with lots of information 🙂

    • mewinebrenner

      February 8, 2013 at 10:08 am

      Thanks! I love this type of science! Hopefully I didn’t get too nerdy!

  2. Kate @ Kate from Scratch

    February 8, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    A highly educational post. Very interesting.

    • mewinebrenner

      February 10, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      Thanks! I’m glad you liked it! I love nutritional science!

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