We all know what our heart loves. We’ve heard it a million times…optimal weight, regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet. In an effort to achieve these goals and continue improving our well-being, most of us have probably given up some of our favorite things this time of year.
But we are human, and sometimes that simple fact gets in the way. It’s our nature to want more, and living for as long as we can is no exception. Thus the conundrum…
What can we consume MORE of and keep our heart happy?
For that answer, I spoke with renowned cardio thoracic surgeon Dr. Steven Gundry, Director of the International Heart and Lung Institute and the Center for Restorative Medicine in Palm Springs. Conversations with Dr. Gundry are always fascinating. He is an internationally-recognized researcher and always up on the latest science; yet uses simplicity and humor in his efforts to get consumers to make healthier choices. His book, Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution, is full of “Gundry-isms” to keep healthy tips top of mind.
When asked what we can eat more of for good heart health, he facetiously replied, “Please, eat as many white and brown foods as you possibly can and I guarantee you, you will produce heart disease, which your heart will just love.”
Let’s not focus on what we have to give up. What can we consume in LARGER quantities? For that, Gundry says we simply need to look at the many generations before us. Before 1900, very few people died of heart disease.1 Since then, heart disease has become the number one killer in the United States taking the lives of more than 2,150 Americans each day, an average of 1 death every 40 seconds.2
Seeded Grapes (or Grape Seed Extract)
“It wasn’t very long ago that we had only seeded grapes. And we ate the grapes and chewed them up. Grapes were one of the first cultivated foods and for thousands of years we have been eating grape seed extract. And then, we took the seeds out.”
According to Gundry, there is now iron-clad evidence that “we are only as young as our blood vessels remain flexible.” Once they become stiff, we start aging rapidly. “Grape seed extracts dramatically improve the flexibility of blood vessels and actually remove the ‘stickiness’ on the inside of our vessels that attracts cholesterol.” The active ingredients in the compounds are classified as polyphenols shown to improve cardiovascular health by slowing or reversing production of fatty deposits (or plaque) in your arteries.3 When blood cholesterol is too high, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) builds up in plaque. Laboratory and clinical research studies have suggested that grape-seed polyphenols lower oxidized LDL and improve cardiac health.3
Other health benefits of grape seed extract include the prevention of certain cancers and reducing risk for neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
“80% of all humans live within an hour of water – particularly ocean water – and for all of our modern evolution, we have been a shore-based culture. Much of our development as humans is directly tied to shellfish and crustaceans (shrimp, crabs, mussels) which are high in omega-3s.” Then we moved to the Midwest.
Omega-3s are good for both heart and brain health. “The more high quality fish oil I can get into people, the better off they are; even better if I can get them to eat sardines.” Gundry uses a blood test which measures omega-3 fats, particularly DHA and EPA . “The highest levels I consistently record are within sardine eaters. In fact, I don’t have to ask any more. I say “Hey, you love sardines!” and they say ‘How did you know?’”
The people of our parent’s age ate so many sardines, he recalls, that we completely depleted the sardine population of Monterey, California. Sardines are now thriving around the world because we have overfished their natural predators, tuna. “So right now sardines are a completely renewable resource.” So give them a try.
“Food only exists to bring olive oil into your mouth.” A classic Gundry-ism.
This Mediterranean delight is not only beneficial for its omega-3s but also for its polyphenols, and according to Gundry, “olive oil is only as good for you as the polyphenol it contains.”
He states that regular versus extra virgin doesn’t matter. Turns out extra virgin is a rating related to acidity and the true health benefits come from unfiltered olive oil, which has more polyphenols than filtered.
“What you are really looking for is a bottling date. If you see a bottling date, that is assurance that you are getting good stuff.” If you don’t see a bottling date, then look for an expiration date. Olive oil should be consumed within the first year of production. The sooner after production, the better it is for you. Similarly, the farther you are away from the ‘use by’ date, the better it is for you.
He references two studies done in Spain and Italy. People were asked to eat a liter of unfiltered extra virgin olive a week. Another group consumed ½ liter of the same oil and the equivalent amount of raw walnuts, in terms of calories. The adhesion molecules on the lining of their blood vessels were measured at the conclusion of the study. “Both of these regiments completely turned off all of the adhesion molecules that attract cholesterol.” The oil and walnuts proved to be a little better.
That is a lot of olive oil, so eat to your heart’s content.
Is the newly popular coconut oil a viable substitute for olive oil? Gundry says no. “While coconut oil is very good for you and has many health benefits, its polyphenol content is only one tenth that of olive oil.”
For heart health, there is no better snack than a handful of raw nuts. (Of course raw means no salt, chocolate or seasoning on them.)
Most varieties including walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts and pecans are packed with nutrients: omega-3 fatty acids; unsaturated fats, which lower bad cholesterol levels; vitamin E: shown to help stop the development of plaque in your arteries; naturally occurring plant sterols, a substance that can help lower cholesterol; L-arginine: a substance that may help improve the health of artery walls by making them more flexible and less prone to blood clots; and fiber.
Nuts pack a powerful punch and are shown to lower LDL, reduce your risk of developing blood clots, and improve the health of the lining of your arteries. 4
But eat them in proportion. Increasing your nut consumption won’t help your heart if you are not cutting back on saturated fats found in chips, as well as, many dairy and meat products. Nuts contain a lot of fat (as much as 80% of a nut is fat) and even though most of this fat is healthy fat, it’s still a lot of calories, so eat them in moderation.
This year, don’t simply deny yourself of things you shouldn’t eat. Fill your cupboards with more good-for-you foods as healthier choices will lead to a healthier lifestyle – and a happier heart.
For additional suggestions on heart healthy foods, visit Dr. Gundry’s website at www.HeartLungInstitute.com. For heart healthy lifestyle tips, visit “Getting Healthy” at www.Heart.org from the American Heart Association.
References: 1) The Franklin Institute. History of the Heart http://www.fi.edu/learn/heart/history/history.html; 2) American Heart Association statistics. Top Ten Things To Know About Heart Disease and Stroke Statistic www.heart.org.; 3) www.livestrong.com; 4) Nuts and your heart: Eating nuts for heart health. www.mayoclinic.com