You suck in your stomach, stand tall with your chest out and slyly grimace as you walk by the large department store window. It's only natural to appreciate the results of one's hard work in the gym. And while we may get a bit of satisfaction by examining our physique, it's even more important for us to spend a bit of time also focusing on what's inside our bodies.
All of us are walking around with some plaque in our arteries. That's reality. And, many of us are also walking around with some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD; diseases of the heart and blood vessels).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four adults has CVD. And if you are a man, your risk for both CVD and death from CVD is greater1. Those are the grim statistics. But, the good news is, many dietary factors affect one's risk of developing this disease2. Why is that good news?
The more diet is involved the more you have wiggle room to decrease your risk. Instead of telling you what you can't eat, I am going to outline 15 physique-friendly foods you that should be included in your diet (in no particular order though fatty fish does stand out as the top food to eat).
1. Fatty Fish
Salmon, Mackerel, Herring, Halibut, Lake Trout, Tuna Steak, Albacore Tuna
Though a medium-rare New York strip might make your mouth water, grilled salmon will make your heart happy. Studies show low rates of death from cardiovascular disease in populations with high fish consumption3,4. Why?
Fatty fish is chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids which decrease both triglyceride levels (fat carried in the bloodstream) and blood pressure. In fact, the relationship between omega-3s and triglyceride levels is dose dependent with higher doses of omega-3s leading to greater decreases in triglyceride levels5.
In addition, eating fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids 1-2 times per week may reduce the risk of coronary death by an astounding 36% and death from all causes by 17%6. As an added bonus, mackerel also contains Coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant that is important for a healthy heart. Coenzyme Q10 levels are low in many patients who take cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.
The research on the health benefits of omega 3s continues to mount, so, eat the equivalent of about two 8 oz servings of fish per week7. If you plan to use supplements instead, aim for up to 1 gram/day of EPA+DHA (the two main omega-3s in fish). And, check with your doctor first if you are on blood thinning medications such as warfarin (Coumadin), Vitamin E or aspirin.
Green, Black, White or Oolong
Loaded with antioxidant polyphenols, tea consumption has been associated with a decrease in several chronic diseases related to free radical-induced damage including heart disease.
Researchers have surmised that polyphenols prevent our bad cholesterol (LDL) from oxidation which inhibits the formation of the stuff that clogs our arteries8.
In one clinical trial, researchers examined the effect of green tea on blood lipids by supplementing 29 subjects with 1 liter (approximately 4 cups) of green tea/day for four weeks, followed by a washout period of 1 liter water/day for 3 weeks and finally, another 4 weeks drinking 1 liter green tea/day.
Significant changes in blood lipids were noted: 90% of subjects reduced LDL with an average decrease of 8.9% and HDL (good cholesterol) increased in 69% of subjects (average 4%)9.
The other bonus—tea is naturally calorie-free. This one is a no-brainer considering the many varieties available. And, you can even cook with green or oolong tea (replace the water used to make rice, stews, soups etc. with green or oolong tea—you won't even taste it but you will reap the rewards!).
Peas, Beans & Lentils
Low in fat and rich in the B vitamin folate, potassium, iron, magnesium, fiber, protein and phytochemicals (plant compounds that might help prevent a number of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease); you can't go wrong by adding legumes to your diet!
In addition, legume consumption is significantly and inversely associated with heart disease10. Try a variety of legumes including black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas (cooked), chickpeas and lentils. Legumes can be added to salads, soups and stews and eaten in hummus and bean dip.
4. Bell Peppers
Loaded With Vitamin C, Potassium, Vitamin A & Antioxidants
Low levels of potassium are associated with high blood pressure. Potassium helps maintain cell fluid balance and plays a role in muscle contraction.
Low levels of this mineral have been associated with high blood pressure11 hence the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet recommendations to include plenty of potassium-rich fruits and vegetables into one's daily diet.
Don't supplement this mineral, instead get it from food. Too much potassium can be fatal (that's why most supplements don't contain more than 1% of the Daily Value).
5. Leafy Greens
Try Every Variety You Can Find
Leafy greens contain fiber (2-5 grams per 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw), carotenoids, folate, phytochemicals, magnesium, potassium and calcium. Carotenoids, the pigment-containing antioxidant compounds that give fruits and vegetables their vast array of vibrant colors, have been associated with decreased levels of both plaque build-up and heart attack12.
Consume at least 3 cups of dark green vegetables per week5. Include leafy greens such as spinach, collard greens, arugula, bok choy and romaine lettuce in your salads, sandwiches and (low-fat) cheese dips.
What Are Carotenoids?
Carotenoids are organic pigments that are naturally occurring in chromoplasts of plants and some other photosynthetic organisms like algae, some types of fungus and some bacteria.
There are over 600 known carotenoids; they are split into two classes, xanthophylls and carotenes.
High In Vitamin C, Folate, Antioxidants, Phytochemicals, Potassium & Fiber
With about 300 mg potassium each7, oranges will help you meet the recommended 4,700 mg of potassium daily and help curb your cravings for sweets5.
7. Whole Grains
Rich In Fiber & Several Vitamins & Minerals Including Iron, Magnesium & Folic Acid
Several studies have linked whole grain consumption to lower blood cholesterol and prevention and management of cardiovascular disease13. Remember to look for "whole-grain" or "whole-wheat". Try a variety of grains including: oats, oat bran, bulgur, quinoa, kasha, multigrain bread, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and barley.
Not Great For Your Social Life But Fantastic For Your Body
Studies indicate that aged garlic extract and other garlic preparations might positively affect a number of cardiovascular risk factors including cholesterol and platelet activity14,15.
Try pressing garlic to release one of its most active ingredients. Cooking is fine but avoid microwaving your meals with garlic which decreases the activity of its heart healthy compounds. Try aged garlic extract or get creative with your cooking and add minced garlic to your pasta salad, pizza, stews and soups. A little goes a long way.
Blueberries, Black Currants, Ligon Berries, Gogi Berries, Chokeberries, Raspberries, Strawberries, Bilberries
Pick a berry and eat it, any berry. Berries are loaded with more antioxidants than many other fruits and vegetables. Eating antioxidants vs. taking them in a pill is preferable and there are few foods where you'll get as much bang for your buck as you will with berries. In addition, a recent Finnish study showed that eating berries may help increase HDL levels and reduce blood pressure.
Short, Medium, Long Grain, Jasmine, Basmati, Arborio, Red Aromatic, Black Japonica, Wild, Brown
There are tons of varieties of rice that you can add to your diet and it comes in short cooking, microwaveable and long cooking options. Rice is the perfect grain for those who are sensitive or intolerant to gluten.
A study presented at the American Dietetic Association meeting in 2007 found that rice eaters have more nutritious diets that are higher in 12 essential vitamins and minerals, including folic acid, potassium and Vitamin C and lower in saturated fat and added sugar, than the diets of non-rice eaters. This study also found that rice eaters have a lower risk of high-blood pressure and being overweight and they may have a reduced risk of heart disease.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. These exist, conjoined with starch, in the endosperms of some grass-related grains, notably wheat, rye, and barley.
Gliadin and glutenin comprise about 80% of the protein contained in wheat seed. Being insoluble in water, they can be purified by washing away the associated starch.
Sprinkle A Few On Your Salad Or In A Bowl Of Oatmeal
Walnuts are often over looked in favor of almonds but, consider this: just 1/4 cup of walnuts contains approximately 20% of your daily need for copper (one of the minerals that isn't found in great quantities in many foods). Walnuts are also a good source of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids as well as those all important polyphenol antioxidants (which prevent LDL oxidation).
In one study published in the journal Circulation, men and women with high cholesterol followed a low-calorie diet with the bulk of their fat intake from monounsaturated rich olives and olive oil or the same diet with the fat coming from walnuts. The group consuming walnuts showed an increase in elasticity of their arteries by 64% and a reduction in vascular cell adhesion (which contributes to atherosclerosis).
Add Sliced Almonds To A Variety Of Dishes Or Try Almond Butter
We know that nut consumption is associated with a reduction in CHD by reducing cholesterol and decreasing LDL oxidation. A recently published study examined the antioxidant action of almonds and LDL oxidation showing a link between the two. This study verifies that there are several heart health components, aside from monounsaturated fats, in almonds that contribute to a reduction in CHD.
13. Olive Oil & Olives
This Mediterranean Staple Now Comes In Light Forms For Baking As Well; Extra Virgin Olive Oil Has The Most Polyphenol Antioxidants
Olive oil and olives are loaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats which are tied to a reduction in CHD and decreased LDL oxidation (which is associated with clogged arteries). So drizzle a little on your favorite Italian dishes or choose an olive oil based dressing over other varieties. Your heart will thank you.
14. Low-Fat Or Fat-Free Dairy
Yogurt, Milk, Cheese, Dairy-Based Protein Shakes
Some studies have indicated that people who include low-fat or non-fat dairy products may have a decreased risk for developing heart disease.
In addition, the DASH diet study showed that a diet low in fat and saturated fat and rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products reduced blood pressure in individuals with and without high blood pressure. The effect of this diet was greater than a diet rich in fruits and vegetables alone. So add a little dairy to your diet to pump up all of your muscles, not just those you see.
15. Wheat Germ
Try A Little In Shakes, Casseroles, Yogurt, Oatmeal & A Variety Of Other Dishes
That's right, this tiny grain is loaded in several vitamins and minerals and two of which are hard to find in many foods: magnesium and copper. Magnesium affects the muscle tone of blood vessels and keeps heart rhythm steady.
Magnesium intake has also been associated with a decreased incidence of coronary heart disease and low magnesium levels have been correlated with high blood pressure and angina (chest pain associated with insufficient blood supply to the heart)16.
Pump up your muscles in the gym, but remember to keep your most important muscle, your heart, healthy by eating right outside of the gym. The 15 foods listed here will help keep you healthy and lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Burden of Chronic Diseases and Their Risk Factors: National and State Perspectives 2004. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/burdenbook2004. February 2004
- Lichtenstein AH et al. Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations Revision 2006: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation 2006;114:82-96.
- Kromhout D, Bosschieter EB, de Lezenne Coulander C. The inverse relation between fish consumption and 20-year mortality from coronary heart disease. N Engl J Med 1985; 312: 1205-1209.
- Kromhout D, Feskens EJ, Bowles CH. The protective effect of a small amount of fish on coronary heart disease mortality in an elderly population. Int J Epidemiol 1995; 24: 340-345.
- Balk E, Chung M, Lichtenstein A, et al. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Intermediate Markers of Cardiovascular Disease. Summary, Evidence Report/Technology Assessment: Number 93. AHRQ Publication Number 04-E010-1, March 2004. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/epcsums/o3cardrisksum.htm
- Mozaffarian D and Rimm EB. Fish intake, contaminants, and human health: evaluating the risks and the benefits. JAMA 2006;296(15):1885-99.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005. 6th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 2005.
- St-Onge. Dietary fats, teas, dairy and nuts: potential functional food for weight control? Am J Clin Nutr 2005; 81(1):7-15.
- Coimbra S et al. Green tea consumption improves plasma lipid profiles in adults. Nutrition Research 2006;26(11): 604-607.
- Bazzano LA, He J, Ogden LG, Loria C, Vupputuri S, Myers L, Whelton PK. Legume consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in US men and women: NHANES I Epidemiologic Follow-up Study. Arch Intern Med 2001 26;161(21):2573-8.
- Bazzano LA, He J, Ogden LG, Loria C, Vupputuri S, Myers L, Whelton PK. Dietary potassium intake and risk of stroke in US men and women: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey I epidemiologic follow-up study. Stroke. 2001;32(7):1473-80.
- Rao AV. Lycopene, tomatoes, and the prevention of coronary heart disease. Med Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2002 Nov;227(10):908-13. Review.
- Marlett JA, McBurney MI, Slavin JL. American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: health implications of dietary fiber. J Am Diet Assoc 2002 Jul;102(7):993-1000.
- Steiner M, Li W. Aged garlic extract, a modulator of cardiovascular risk factors: a dose-finding study on the effects of AGE on platelet functions. J Nutr. 2001 Mar;131(3s):980S-4S.
- Ackermann RT, Mulrow CD, Ramirez G, Gardner CD, Morbidoni L, Lawrence VA. Garlic shows promise for improving some cardiovascular risk factors. Arch Intern Med. 2001 Mar 26;161(6):813-24.
- Townsend MS, Fulgoni VL, Stern JS, Adu-Afarwuah S, McCarron DA. Low mineral intake is associated with high systolic blood pressure in the third and fourth National health and nutrition examination surveys. Am J Hypertension 2005 18:261-269.