If there’s one disease you can lower your risk for through lifestyle, it’s heart disease. What you eat and how active you are two of the biggest factors that determine whether your heart stays healthy. With heart disease being the leading cause of death, it’s good to know that the choices you make matter.
You probably already know some of the basics of a heart-healthy diet:
. Eliminate trans-fats
. Cut back on sugar and avoid high fructose corn syrup
. Eat whole foods as opposed to refined and packaged foods
. Choose healthy fat sources like those in nuts, olive oil, and fatty fish
. Eat your fruits and veggies
Combine these heart-healthy dietary habits with regular exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management and you’re well on your way to lowering your risk for heart disease.
There’s also some evidence that specific nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, are essential for heart health. If you eat a healthy diet, you’ll likely get adequate amounts of these vitamins but if you’re trying to lose weight or otherwise cutting back on calories, you may fall short of these heart-healthy vitamins and minerals. Here are some of the key players that help keep your heart healthy.
With so much focus on calcium, magnesium doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Magnesium is necessary for carrying out more than 300 chemical reactions inside your body, including ones involved in energy production, cell growth, bone health and nerve, and heart function. According to research, most people don’t get enough magnesium in their diet and magnesium deficiency rises with age.
What role does magnesium play in heart health? Magnesium improves endothelial function, the health, and functionality of the inner walls of arteries. Under healthy conditions, cells that line the inner walls of arteries produce a chemical called nitric oxide that helps arteries relax. This helps lower blood pressure.
In addition, nitric oxide has favorable effects on cells that line the arterial walls, making them more resistant to forming clots that could lead to a heart attack or stroke. Plus, magnesium also improves how insulin functions and may lower the chance of becoming insulin resistant, a risk factor for heart disease.
Some studies have linked higher intake of magnesium with a lower risk for heart disease and stroke. The best sources of magnesium are green, leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. Make sure you’re getting enough of these foods in your diet.
Vitamin D is having its day “in the sun,” literally. Low levels of the sunshine vitamin have been linked with a variety of health issues, including cardiovascular disease. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2014 found a link between low vitamin D and a higher risk for heart disease and all-cause mortality. While this doesn’t necessarily prove cause and effect, it does suggest we need to be aware of our vitamin D status.
Low and borderline low vitamin D levels are surprisingly common, even among people who eat a healthy diet. The best source of vitamin D isn’t what you eat – it’s exposure to the sun. On your skin are vitamin D precursors that are activated by sunlight. These precursors once turned on, undergo further activation by your liver and kidneys. If you live in an area that gets little direct sunlight or wear sunscreen all year round, you may not be supplying your body’s vitamin D needs. If you have a dark skin tone, you need even more sun exposure to get enough vitamin D. It’s a good idea to get a vitamin D level checked periodically to see where you stand. If you’re even borderline low, you may need a supplement.
Some research has linked higher consumption of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids with a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. Omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect that may help protect the walls of blood vessels from damage and prevent oxidation of LDL-cholesterol. Oxidized LDL is the most dangerous kind in terms of the health of your heart. Plus, long-chain omega-3s modestly lower blood pressure.
The best source of long-chain omega-3s is fatty fish like wild-caught salmon. Not all fish are high in omega-3s. Plus, some fish, especially larger species, can contain high levels of mercury and other toxins. Stick with fatty fish low on the food chain like sardines, anchovies, and wild salmon.
What about other sources of omega-3s like flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts? These omega-3s are structurally different, being short-chain fatty acids. Your body isn’t very efficient at converting short-chain omega-3s to long-chain ones. In fact, as little as 5% actually gets converted. Although these sources of omega-3s have other health benefits, don’t count on them to be a reliable source of long-chain omega-3s.
Because some recent studies have called into question whether omega-3s live up to their heart-health claims, it’s best to get these fats by eating fatty fish twice a week as opposed to taking a supplement.
Protect Your Heart with Good Nutrition
Choose what you eat wisely. Two eating plans that are strongly linked with heart health are the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. Both emphasize whole foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, lean sources of non-red meat protein, including fish, and healthy fats. Finally, make sure you’re treating any risk factors for heart disease you might have such as high blood pressure, diabetes and elevated cholesterol. Combine good nutrition with regular physical activity and you have the ultimate formula for a healthy heart.
American Heart Association. “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements”
Berkeley Wellness. “Magnesium: A Mighty Mineral”
Am J Clin Nutr March 2014 vol. 99 no. 3 647-648.
Hruby A, O’Donnell C, Jacques P, et al: Magnesium intake is inversely associated with coronary artery calcification: The Framingham Heart Study. JACC Cardiovascular Imaging 2014; 7:59-69.
Everyday Health. “New Evidence for Protective Effects of Vitamin D on Your Heart” July 2014.
Am J Epidemiol. 2014;179(11):1279-1287.
Medscape.com. “Vitamin D and Cardiovascular Disease”
WebMD. “Low Vitamin D Levels Linked to High Blood Pressure” June 2014.
WebMD. “Daily Fish Oil Supplement May Not Help Your Heart” March 17, 2014.
American Journal of Hypertension. “Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid and Blood Pressure: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials” January 19, 2014.
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