Don’t just win over your loved ones’ hearts, protect them too. Heart-healthy foods are a delicious way to reduce the risk of heart disease. From salmon and sweet potatoes to red wine and chocolate, the nutrients present in many whole foods both prevent and repair cell damage, lowering the risk of contracting heart disease. According to experts from the Cleveland Clinic and the American Dietetic Association, the top performing foods (and their associated nutrients) to protect your heart and blood vessels are:
- Salmon: Omega-3 fatty acids
- Flaxseed (ground): Omega-3 fatty acids; fiber; phytoestrogens
- Oatmeal: Omega-3 fatty acids; magnesium; potassium; folate; niacin; calcium; soluble fiber
- Black or Kidney Beans: B-complex vitamins; niacin; folate; magnesium; omega-3 fatty acids; calcium; soluble fiber
- Almonds: omega-3 fatty acids; vitamin E; magnesium; fiber; heart-favorable mono- and polyunsaturated fats; phytosterols
- Walnuts: omega-3 fatty acids; vitamin E; magnesium; folate; fiber; mono- and polyunsaturated fats; phytosterols
- Red wine: catechins and reservatrol (flavonoids)
- Tuna: omega-3 fatty acids, folate, niacin
- Tofu: niacin; folate; calcium; magnesium; potassium
10. Brown rice: B-complex vitamins; fiber; niacin; magnesium; fiber
Soymilk, blueberries, carrots, spinach, broccoli, sweet potato, red bell peppers, asparagus, oranges, tomatoes, acorn squash, cantaloupe, papaya, dark chocolate and tea also make the list.
So what is it about these foods and nutrients that give them their hyped ratings? The following definitions will help you to better understand the nutritional properties of these heart health super foods. Phytoestrogens are found in plants and have a weak estrogen-like action in the body; studies suggest that these nutrients lower the risk of blood clots, stroke, and cardiac arrhythmias, and may help lower total and LDL “bad” cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. Phytosterols found in all nuts and seeds, including wheat germ, are plant sterols that chemically resemble cholesterol and have been found to reduce cholesterol. Carotenoids are heart-protective antioxidants in fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols are antioxidants that protect blood vessels, lower blood pressure, reduce LDL cholesterols. Omega-3 fattys acids and alpha-linolenic fatty acids support immune function, reduce blood clots and protect against heart attacks. They also increase “good” HDL levels, lower triglyceride levels, protect arteries from plaque buildup, reduce inflammation, and lower blood pressure. B-complex vitamins like folate and B-6 protect against blood clots and atherosclerosis, and niacin helps increase HDL good cholesterol. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants that protect cells from free-radical damage. Magnesium, potassium and calcium lower blood pressure, and fiber-rich foods lower cholesterol levels.
So what to cook for your friends, family or significant other on February 14th? Spiced roasted nuts and raw crudités are a great way to start off your Valentine’s Day meal, followed by a Latin inspired broiled salmon dish served with brown rice, and obviously completed with a bit (a big bit) of quality dark chocolate and a glass of red wine.
Easy Spiced Roasted Nuts
Yield 3 cups (about 20 handfuls)
3 cups nuts of your choosing
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Preheat the over to 350 degrees. Toss nuts with olive oil, salt and cayenne and place in a baking sheet. Roast in the oven until they begin to crackle and smell toasty, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Toss with thyme.
Nutritional information per 20 grams (about 18 nuts, ¼ cup or 2 handfuls) on average: 119 calories; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 2 grams polyunsaturated fat; 7 grams monounsaturated fat; 0 grams cholesterol; 4 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams dietary fiber; 4 grams protein
Broiled Salmon with Citrus Salsa Verde
Yields 4 servings
Total time: 23 minutes
2 large oranges
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 scallions, finely sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons capers, drained, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons orange zest
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
4 (6 to 8 ounce) center cut salmon fillets, skinned, each about 3 square inches
Salt and pepper
For the salsa: Peel and trim the ends from each orange. Using a paring knife, cut along the membrane on both sides of each segment. Add the segments to a medium bowl with the olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, scallions, mint, capers, orange zest, lemon zest and red pepper flakes. Toss lightly and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
For the salmon: Preheat the broiler. Line a heavy rimmed baking sheet with foil. Spray the foil with nonstick spray. Arrange salmon fillets on the baking sheet and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Broil for about 7 minutes, until the fillets are just cooked through. Transfer fillets to plates and serve with citrus salsa verde spooned over the top.
Nutritional information per serving: Calories 294; Total Fat: 11 grams; Saturated Fat: 2 grams; Protein: 45 grams; Total carbohydrates: 3 grams; Sugar: 0 grams; Fiber: 0 grams; Cholesterol: 115 milligrams; Sodium: 463 milligrams
For dessert I suggest serving antioxidant-rich Zinfandel (also great with salmon) and dark chocolate that is at least 60% cocoa. I like Bogle Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel ($9 from Trader Joe’s) and Green & Black’s Organic Dark 70% chocolate (Whole Foods).
Lastly, whether or not you subscribe to the theory of aphrodisiacs, love foods are prized in cultures worldwide and it may be time to give them a try this Valentine’s Day. According to Dr. Nalini Chilkov L.Ac., O.M.D., “Love foods have circulatory, relaxant and muscle strengthening effects, or visual, tactile or sensory impact that stimulates the psyche. The brain, after all, is the largest sexual organ in the body.” If you’re looking to get your blood pumping, the following foods are alleged to be natural aphrodisiacs:
– Oysters: Oysters improve dopamine levels which boosts libido in men and women; oysters are also high in zinc which is vital for testosterone production and healthy sperm.
– Watermelon: Claimed to deliver Viagra-like effects on blood vessels throughout the body and may increase libido. Watermelon contains the amino acid citruline, which is good for the cardiovascular system and helps relax the blood vessels that increase sex drive.
– Cocoa or chocolate: This legendary nourishment of the Gods has more antioxidants than green tea or red wine and contains the chemical phenylethylamine, said to stimulate a sense of excitement and well-being.
– Asparagus: Beyond its suggestive shape, asparagus is high in folate that aids in increasing histamine, important for a healthy sex drive.
– Pumpkin seeds: like oysters, pumpkin seeds are high in zinc and thus increase testosterone. They are also full of libido vitamins B, E, C, D, K and minerals including calcium, potassium, and phosphorus.
Get your mojo going by adding in pumpkin seeds to your spiced roasted nuts or broiling asparagus tossed with olive oil and Parmesan alongside your salmon.
Amy Elvidge is a first year AFE student who writes regularly for Friedman Sprout.