- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February is the month for valentines, but it also is American Heart Month, a time to rally against cardiovascular diseases, the No. 1 killer of Americans. Start by resolving to treat your heart better.

The average human heart is about the size of a clenched fist and weighs about 11 ounces. That’s small compared to its prodigious workload and all the more reason to protect it. Because there is no magic pill or cure-all nutrient for heart disease, keep up with the best nutritional information and incorporate it into your daily habits.

Here are some dietary building blocks of heart health.

SOLUBLE FIBER

This naturally occurring substance is found in grains and some fruits and vegetables. It passes through the body undigested. The heart benefit is that it binds with fatty acids (aimed for excretion) and therefore may lower total cholesterol and the bad (LDL) cholesterol. You should consume 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily, but most people don’t come close to that number. To up the ante, incorporate oats/oat bran (raisin bran or oat bran cereals), nuts (watch portions - the fat can add up) and flaxseed. (Make sure it’s ground up, as whole seeds pass through the body undigested with no benefit.) As you add fiber, drink more water, for the added bulk needs the push to clear it through the system.

OMEGA-3

These fatty acids are essential to human health but are not manufactured by the body. We must get them from food. They come in three types: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is found in flaxseed, flax oil, soy and eggs enriched with omega-3 fat acids. EPA and DHA can be found in fatty fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel. Opt for wild salmon when possible - it has less mercury and other chemicals.

Research suggests consuming a diet rich in EPA. DHA helps reduce heart disease by lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure. Strong evidence also suggests that omega-3s may help treat atherosclerosis by preventing the development of plaque and blood clots - both can clog arteries.

To reap the benefits of omega-3s, healthy adults should have a weekly intake of no more than 6 to 8 grams.

STANOLS OR STEROLS

These are naturally found in small quantities in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, vegetable oils, cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds. Plant stanols work by blocking the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestines, thereby lowering the bad cholesterol but keeping the good cholesterol untouched.

Recommended daily intake of plant stanols is 2 to 3 grams. The food industry has, of course, seized the opportunity to enrich foods with these stanols (e.g., Benecol margarine). Ingesting just 2 to 4 tablespoons per day meets these requirements, but be mindful of the amount of fat in these margarines (about 5 grams per tablespoon). Don’t forget that plant stanols come in other natural forms as well. Getting the nutrients we need by eating a variety of foods is always the way to go.

POTASSIUM

Just because Americans eat too much doesn’t mean we get enough of every nutrient, particularly potassium. Recent research has shown that even a mild potassium deficiency may lead to hypertension and other cardiovascular deficiencies.

The sodium-to-potassium ratio is very important for electrolyte balance. The human body needs both for optimal function. The Western diet typically has a 4-to-1 ratio, which is the polar opposite of the earlier human diet. We can thank processed foods for that switch.

Limiting dietary sodium is an obvious solution to this imbalance, but this is challenging. An alternative is to increase potassium in the diet. Despite potatoes’ bad rap in the past decade, they happen to be a potassium-rich food (among other great attributes). So are other starchy vegetables, such as sweet potato and acorn squash. Try roasting them in the oven for a rich flavor, as opposed to the usual methods of baking and steaming. Bananas are another potassium gold star. Try a smoothie with a little skim milk for a midafternoon snack. Raisins and apricots also are high in potassium and are great additions to cereals, oatmeals and salads.

It’s better to increase potassium through whole foods, not by supplements. If you have renal problems, consult your doctor before increasing potassium. Serum potassium would have to be monitored closely.

B VITAMINS

This group encompasses the essential water-soluble vitamins except vitamin C. It includes vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) and others (e.g., biotin, folic acid and the cobalamins).

Research has discovered that elevated homocysteine levels may contribute to heart disease. Homocysteine is an amino acid that can build up and clog blood vessels. Studies have revealed that B6, B12 and folic acid may help prevent heart attacks and strokes by lowering homocysteine.

B1 is naturally found in lentils, peas, whole-grain breads and rice and in enriched white bread and cereals.

B2 is in almonds, organ meats, whole grains, yogurt and milk. Flours and cereals are often fortified with riboflavin. B2 is destroyed by light, so it’s best to store it away from the light to protect B2.

B3 is in many foods, including yeast, meat, fish, chicken, eggs, milk and green vegetables. Vitamin B3 may help lower high cholesterol and fat levels in the blood.

Major sources of B6 include legumes, cereal grains, potatoes, milk, eggs, meat, liver and some vegetables (such as carrots and spinach).

B12 is mostly found in animal protein, including eggs and dairy. We are rarely deficient (because we store one to two years’ worth) with the exception of strict vegetarians or vegans and those people who cannot absorb it.

Good sources of folic acid include fortified cereals, leafy vegetables (spinach and broccoli), some fruits (melons and bananas), legumes, organ meats and tomato juice.

All of the vitamins listed above are used in combination to form the B-complex vitamin. Folic acid is sometimes the exception, so check the supplement to maximize heart health.

In reality, what’s described above is a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, fish and other meats. Watch portions and add some exercise and you and your sweetheart will be celebrating Valentine’s Day for years to come.

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