Following New Year’s invigorating start, February is, for some of us, the month when overly optimistic daily exercise resolutions fade. But, before we feel the abrupt jolt of lofty fitness and work-out expectations being grounded, fear not, as there is an additional path to improved health and wellness— nutrition. Below are foods that can ‘bring the love back’ into your fitness goals by strengthening your cardiovascular system.
Mechanism: Keeping the cells inside your arteries healthy will promote cardiovascular system health; this is what pomegranate has been shown to do. Unique antioxidants found within this exotic fruit the cells that line our blood vessels (endothelial cells) against free-radical damage caused by poor lifestyle choices. Specifically, pomegranate works by reducing oxidative stress, inhibiting the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol (bad), and through supporting activity of nitric oxide and its synthesis.
How: Incorporating fresh pomegranate is always desired, when available. Look for it in the produce department, as Steve tries to maintain stock whenever an organic source is available. If a fresh option is unavailable, then try the pomegranate capsules we offer in our Nutrition Department. We also carry three juices: Lakewood organic pomegranate blend and pure pomegranate juice (neither are from concentrate), and pure pomegranate juice from R W Knudsen. For those with a sweet tooth we carry pomegranate toaster pastries by Nature’s Path, organic hard candies by Go Naturals, raspberry pomegranate 100% fruit preserves, and Kind’s pomegranate, blueberry, pistachio bar.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Mechanism: The ‘western’ diet (read American) consists of plenty of omega-6 fatty a c i d s b u t i s relatively short on the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids. Specifically to the tune of 20:1 omega-6 to omega-3, when ideally this ratio is recommended to be between 1:1 and 4:1. Vascular inflammation can develop due to this imbalance, and when our blood vessels become inflamed our endothelial cells can become damaged. Damaged endothelial cells will result in arterial plaque build-up. Why do we care? Well, according to the CDC, heart disease is again the number one killer in the U.S.
How: Omega-3’s can be attained through consuming a variety of sources, some more bioavailable than others. Fish is a great, ready to use, omega-3 rich food for the body. Plant based foods such as walnuts and flax are also great sources; though you must consume considerably greater amounts on a gram-for-gram basis than if consuming fish or fish oil supplements. If you just don’t want to face the taste of fish oil, try Barlean’s Omega Swirls. They are delicious! The chia seed is also another great plant based choice for receiving plant sourced omega-3 fatty acids.
Mechanism: Cacao, rich in polyphenols, has flavonoids tha t have be en shown to exhibit antithrombotic (clotting), anti-inflammatory, and antihypertensive (high blood pressure) effects in certain populations. Cacao also helps pr event LDLcholesterol from oxidation and can improve the dilation of blood vessels. Also, though likely insignificant, cacao contains trace amounts of resveratrol (of red wine fame) which maintains cardioprotective properties. This spectrum of cardioprotection makes cacao an essential food for anyone looking to achieve greater heart health and avoid cardiac events.
How: look for dark chocolate bars or powders containing at least 70% cacao, as this is the active ingredient. Raw cacao products are an excellent way of adding this to your diet. My personal favorite is cacao nibs as they are easily tossed into dietary staples, such as yogurt and oatmeal, without deterring from taste. We also offer several varieties of raw chocolate bars.
Mechanism: Studies have shown green tea contains four major antioxidants and may lower blood pressure, stabilize both insulin and blood sugar levels, lower total systemic inflammation, and help maintain healthy cell function.
How: Though available in pill form, green tea is also highly bioavailable as a traditional tea brew. Roughly 30 to 40% of green tea’s chemical composition is made of those protective catechins and these are contained within the brewed tea. Drink multiple cups per day, ideally around those meals that are higher in dietary fats.
Incorporating the foods mentioned above can help strengthen the heart. But the basics of a ‘heart healthy’ diet and lifestyle should not be forgotten either. As a refresher here are some tips:
- Pay attention to the amount and source of saturated fats you consume.
- Choose predominantly grass feed meat, poultry, and milk products. These have a greater proportion of omega-3 and omega-7 fatty acids, which will help your cause in keeping a strong heart.
- Pay attention to the total amount of fats consumed. Only 20 to 35% of total calories should come from fats.
- Strike a balance between omega-3, omega-6, omega-9, and other saturated fats. Incorporating a variety of oils for cooking, such as olive and avocado, and consuming flax and fatty fish will diversify your diet.
- Consume dietary fiber. Focus on whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables; flax seeds and chia seeds are foods incorporating multiple criteria of a heart healthy diet. If you are having trouble finding ways to increase your fiber intake, try picking four fiber rich foods to consume daily, then plan your meals around these food items; this is a bottom-up approach.
- Try to get plenty of physical activity and to maintain a healthy body weight.
So, whether your fitness goals have already been derailed or if you’re still steadily plugging along the path to greater wellbeing, remember that by putting focus on your heart you are investing in the long-term. Finally, it is a good philosophy to do everything in moderation. Thus, a little indulgence in chocolate hearts this month doesn’t hurt either!