Some foods, such as grapes, tea and chocolate, contain special components called phytochemicals that may be beneficial to your heart health. While you enjoy them in moderation, you may be doing something healthy for your heart.
Flavonoids are one group of phytochemicals found naturally in red wine, tea, cocoa, soy, citrus fruits, berries, apples, onions and pulses (dried beans, peas and lentils). There are thousands of different flavonoids found in many different foods. For example, there are catechins in tea, flavanols in cocoa and isoflavones in soy. Research shows a variety of flavonoids may be beneficial for your heart health. That's why it's often recommended that you eat a variety of fruits and vegetables of different colors.
Flavonoids act as a shield in plants to protect against toxins and to help repair damage. It is thought that when we eat flavonoids, they act similarly within the body. As antioxidants, they help prevent damage from free radicals that can build up during normal body processes, such as breathing. When flavonoids prevent free radicals from building up, oxidation of "bad" lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol decreases, which prevents atherosclerosis, or plaque formation within the walls of the arteries. Flavonoids also appear to help prevent blood clotting, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, decrease inflammation and help with insulin sensitivity. Thus, although more research is needed, eating a variety of foods rich in flavonoids may lower your risk of heart disease.
Should I Drink Red Wine For Heart Health?
There are many negative health effects of excessive alcohol intake, including high triglycerides, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer such as breast cancer, and excessive caloric intake contributing to obesity. So, if you choose not to drink alcohol currently, the American Heart Association does not recommend that you begin drinking any type of alcohol for heart health.
But, if you choose to drink alcohol, it is best to drink in moderation. That means an average of one drink per day for women, and one to two drinks per day for men. (A drink is defined as 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1½ ounces of spirits.)
When you drink in moderation, research has suggested that you may have a lower risk of dying from heart disease. But more research is needed in this area. Some studies have suggested that red wine may be better than other types of alcohol, partly due to flavonoids (catechins and anthocyanins) and another phytochemical called resveratrol found in the skin and seeds of red grapes. Resveratrol may act as an antioxidant to lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and may help platelets keep from sticking together, which helps prevent blood clots. However, research has not proven that red wine is better for heart health than other types of alcohol consumed in moderation.
Rest assured, if you choose not to drink alcohol, there are many conventional ways you can obtain the same beneficial effects that alcohol produces, including the following:
- Exercise to raise "good" HDL cholesterol, and
- Eating a healthy diet rich in a variety of plant foods to obtain heart-healthy antioxidants. Grapes, grape juice and peanuts also contain resveratrol.
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Is Tea Good for My Heart?
Green tea has received a lot of attention as the "healthy tea" because it has been associated with improved blood vessel function and a lower risk of dying from heart disease. It has been suggested that this may be because green tea has more catechins, a type of flavonoid, than black tea does. However, recent research has suggested black tea and even coffee may also protect against heart disease.
Drinking a lot of green tea or black tea (possibly up to six cups a day) may help prevent heart disease. Moderate coffee intake (about two to four cups a day) also seems to be associated with a lower risk of heart disease than drinking more or less or no coffee.
But studies are not conclusive, and more research is needed, especially before any recommendations can be made about how much tea or coffee to drink. In addition, many studies have been conducted on healthy people who do not have heart disease, so it is not known if the benefits apply to people who already have heart disease. So, don't feel you should begin to drink tea or coffee for your heart health. But if you already drink tea or coffee, it may be helping your heart. Just be sure to remember the following:
- Iced tea and iced coffee count, too.
- Add nonfat or 1-percent milk instead of cream or half and half.
- Skip flavored syrups and sugar or use a sugar substitute, if necessary.
- Ask your doctor about caffeine and whether you should avoid or limit it.
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Can I Have My Chocolate and Eat It Too?
Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. Research has shown flavanols act as an antioxidant, help lower blood pressure, help prevent blood clotting, lower cholesterol, decrease inflammation and help with insulin sensitivity. That's probably why some studies have shown eating dark chocolate is associated with less coronary heart disease.
But before you reach for a chocolate bar, you should know not all chocolate is created equally. And most cocoa or chocolate products don't contain the same amount of flavanols used in the research studies. The problem is with processing. Flavanols contribute a bitter taste to cocoa. The more chocolate is processed through roasting, alkalizing and fermentation, the less bitter it tastes and the more flavanols are depleted from the cocoa. Most commercial chocolate and cocoa is highly processed, although chocolate companies are continually trying to find ways of processing to keep the most flavanols in their products.
Cocoa powder, which is separated from the cocoa butter, contains no fat. So it is one of the best ways to include chocolate in your heart-healthy eating plan. Dark chocolate and especially milk chocolate are processed with large amounts of artery-clogging saturated fat and sugar, which are likely to cancel out positive effects on heart health from the flavanols.
White chocolate contains no cocoa or flavanols, since it contains only cocoa butter, or the fat from the cocoa bean.
Health benefits are not a reason to start eating chocolate. But if you want to enjoy chocolate, choose dark chocolate (usually the darker, the better) for the most flavanols and make sure the first ingredient listed is cocoa (not sugar). And since research hasn't identified the optimal amount of chocolate for heart health, eat it only in moderation-one or two small squares a day. But when you do, enjoy it all the more knowing you may be helping your heart. Just be sure to cut calories elsewhere to control weight.
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What's the Scoop About Soy?
Soybeans and products made from soy, including tofu, soy milk, edamame (green soybeans in the pod) and soy crumbles (textured vegetable protein) provide high-quality, plant-based protein that can replace meat products high in saturated fat.
Soy is also the only significant source of two isoflavones, a type of flavonoid, that act as phyto-estrogens, or plant-based estrogens. This may explain why populations that consume large amounts of soy, such as in Southeast Asia, have lower rates of coronary heart disease.
Phyto-estrogens are structurally similar to estrogen and provide protection against heart disease by binding to estrogen receptors. Soy has been shown to lower cholesterol, decrease the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which helps prevent atherosclerosis, and increase vasodilation (relaxation) of the blood vessels.
The research is compelling enough that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a health claim for soy in 1999. Foods that contain 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving are allowed to use this statement on the packaging:
"25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. A serving of [name of food] supplies __ grams of soy protein."
Try these easy ways to incorporate soy products into your eating plan to lower your risk of heart disease:
- Drink soy milk and use it in place of cow's milk on cereal, in baking, and so on.
- Substitute frozen soy crumbles instead of meat in spaghetti sauce, chili or tacos.
- Stir-fry tofu cut into cubes with a mix of vegetables, ginger and onion; serve with brown rice.
- Steam edamame (green soybeans in the pod) and pop the beans out into your mouth, throwing away the pod.
Replace about one-fourth to one-half cup of all-purpose flour with soy flour in baked goods.
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