By Linda Formichelli
Heart disease, the number one killer in the U.S., doesn't discriminate: While it tends to strike men earlier, it affects both genders. (Sorry, ladies!)
The good news is, many cases of stroke and heart attacks are preventable through lifestyle changes. For example, a healthy diet can help prevent heart disease, and some foods are lauded by dietitians as playing an especially important role in keeping your ticker humming.
We spoke with experts and looked at the research to figure out the top five foods that will keep your heart happy.
Oatmeal: Fabulous Fiber
This hearty breakfast staple is a good source of beta glucan, a form of soluble fiber that's been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels and carry excess cholesterol out of the body, says Marisa Moore, RD, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson and a nutritional consultant in Atlanta.
To get this benefit, you need three grams of soluble fiber per day (about 1½ cups of cooked oatmeal) as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. How can you get this into your daily meals? In addition to enjoying oatmeal for breakfast topped with fruit and nuts, you can bake up a batch of oatmeal bars or muffins or add it as a binder to turkey meatloaf.
Soy has been shown to reduce LDL (or bad) cholesterol, says Toby Smithson, RD, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson and founder of DiabetesEveryday.Com although the effect may vary based on individual cholesterol levels.
Soy protein can also replace some of the saturated fats from meats and dairy in your diet; saturated fat should be limited to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories because it boosts the amount of cholesterol in the blood. Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy and moderate portions of lean meats.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a health claim for food labels stating that eating 25 grams of soy protein per day may reduce the risk of heart disease. To meet this goal, nosh on edamame, create smoothies using silken tofu, and add a splash of soymilk to your cereal and coffee.
Popeye Had It Right: Spinach
Fruits and vegetables naturally boast plant stanols and sterols, which help lower LDL cholesterol by blocking absorption of cholesterol from foods causing it to pass out of the body through waste. Spinach has the added benefit of being rich in potassium, which can help lower blood pressure levels, says Moore.
Veggies and greens like spinach are also low in calories and a good source of fiber, which provides bulk that fills you up faster; this makes it an important ally in the war against excess weight that ups your chances of heart disease.
Spinach is delicious in salads, as a sauté, in eggs, and in soups. But don't rely on it exclusively — plant foods work synergistically to keep us healthy, so be sure to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, and greens.
Salmon: In the Pink of Health
Fatty fish like salmon is a great source of omage-3 fatty acids. "Omega-3s have been shown to help lower triglyceride levels, reduce the risk of blood clots, reduce the overall risk for heart attacks, and lower blood pressure levels," says Moore. Omega-3s also reduce inflammation, which plays a major role in diseases including heart disease.
Try to eat eight ounces of salmon per week. Not a fan? You can get the same effect from mackerel, fresh albacore tuna, Atlantic herring, sardines, and lake trout.
Go (Wal)nuts for Heart Health
Walnuts are a good source of polyunsaturated fat — the kind that's been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels and lower the production of LDL cholesterol in the body. They're also a vegetarian source of omega-3s, making them a boon for people who don't eat fish.
Be careful, though — nuts are high in calories, which can cause you to pack on pounds if you down too much. A serving of walnuts is 14 halves — roughly the amount a woman can hold in her palm, says Moore. Try them in oatmeal, as a topping for chicken or fish, on salads, in muffins, and on sautéed kale.
Linda Formichelli has written on health and nutrition for Fitness, Health, Women's Health, WebMD, Alternative Medicine, Redbook, Oxygen, and other national magazines. She is based in North Carolina. Visit Linda at www.lindaformichelli.com.