Happy Valentine’s day! I know many people are thinking about their romantic heart today, but did you also know it’s Heart Health month?
The story around diet and heart health has been around long enough that you probably know the drill pretty well. Watch your weight, keep your total fats and saturated fats down, and don’t be too heavy-handed with the salt shaker. Sprinkle in some soluble fiber—from foods like beans and oatmeal—and you’ve got a pretty good dietary strategy.
All good advice, to be sure. After all, a high-fat diet can put weight on you, saturated fats can bump up your blood cholesterol levels, and too much salt can drive up blood pressure—all of which can increase your risk for heart disease. But there are a couple of other pieces to the heart health puzzle that are getting more attention these days—a fatty acid “balancing act,” and a little molecule called nitric oxide.
When I began counseling patients many years ago, the memo on dietary fats was pretty short: saturated fats were the bad guys, and polyunsaturated fats were the good guys. But the story has gotten a lot more complex, due to growing concern that our balance of two kinds of polyunsaturated fats—the omega-3 fats and the omega-6 fats—is way out of whack. And it appears that this imbalance is affecting our health.
It isn’t simply that omega-3 fatty acids are the good guys, and that omega-6 fats are the bad guys. Neither of these fats is inherently “bad.” In fact, they’re called “essential” fatty acids—which means that we need to eat them, because our body can’t make them. In small amounts (and in the proper balance), these essential fatty acids serve important functions in the body, such as supporting growth, vision and brain function and healthy circulation.
The trouble is that we generally eat far too much of the omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3. While we need them both if we don’t take them in the right balance, it can affect our health. Our modern-day diet is overloaded with omega-6 laden foods like chips, salad dressings and sweets. At the same time, we come up short when it comes to eating foods like fish, vegetables, walnuts and flaxseeds that supply omega-3s. Two omega-3 fatty acids in particular—called EPA and DHA – are abundant in fish and help to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. But many people don’t eat the recommended minimum of two fish meals per week.
The good news is that you can shift your ratio of these fatty acids in your diet. One of the healthiest practices is to try to have several fish meals a week to provide healthy EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Fresh fish is great, but canned fish is easy and convenient, too. If you’re not a fish lover, you can supplement with fish oil capsules that provide omega-3 fatty acids.
Nitric oxide—produced in cells lining the surface of the blood vessels—is a gas that dilates arteries, which in turn aids blood flow and reduces blood pressure. It’s also a strong antioxidant, working to relieve oxidative stress in the body and reduce the threat of heart disease.
Nitric oxide is produced by the body from oxygen, along with arginine—an amino acid found in abundance in protein-rich foods like nuts, beans and seafood. But there’s also another source: our bodies can manufacture nitric oxide from the nitrates in the foods that we eat.
You may only know nitrates and nitrites as an additive to cured meats like ham—they’re put there primarily to preserve freshness, color and flavor. But in fact very little of the nitrate we eat comes from cured meats.
It turns out that the majority of the nitrate we consume comes from vegetables and fruits, the richest sources being spinach, lettuce, celery, cauliflower, grapes, strawberries and root vegetables. Fruits and vegetables have always been known as nutritional powerhouses. They’re loaded with antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and they provide vitamin C, which enhances the generation of nitric oxide in the body. But the fact that they’re also nitrate-rich gives us yet another reason to eat plenty of them.
The foundations of a heart-healthy diet are pretty simple—it’s what you already know as a healthy, well-balanced diet.