22 Heart-Smart Foods

By now you know that eating too much fat can clog your arteries. But did you realize that some foods can actually help clear arteries, lower cholesterol and reduce blood pressure? And there's a whole lot more out there besides oat bran. You may be surprised to learn that a handful of peanuts, a cup of tea and a piece of rich chocolate all contain substances that may help reduce the risk factors for heart disease, the number-one killer of women. Making the 22 foods below part of your regular diet can do wonders for your heart. So get started on the road to good heart health - you'll love every bite.

  1. ALMONDS  Most nuts are made of "good" (monounsaturated) fat, which will only help your cholesterol level. But almonds pack even more nutritional punch. They provide a dose of artery-protecting vitamin E, plus zinc, fiber and magnesium. Make a tasty breakfast or snack - Toss a handful of almonds over your morning cereal or yogurt. Or mix them with raisins to nibble on during the day.

  2. APPLES  An apple a day may very well keep heart disease away. Pectin, the fiber found in apples, binds itself to cholesterol so that it can't circulate to your arteries. In one study, people with elevated cholesterol who consumed pectin for six weeks lowered their cholesterol by as much as 10 percent. Apples also contain flavonoids, compounds that may cut heart-disease risk in half when consumed regularly. Add them to dinner - Use apples in green salads, or try them in casseroles.

  3. BEANS  Consider them a wonder food. Countless studies suggest that eating 1 1/2 cups of beans daily provides enough soluble fiber to lower cholesterol levels. In addition, beans provide folic acid, a B vitamin that helps prevent buildup of homocyseine, a substance that clogs arteries in the same way cholesterol does. Toss up a hearty lunch - Create a bean salad by combining your favorite varieties of beans with chopped tomatoes, scallions and fat-free Italian dressing.

  4. CORN  Every kernel is packed with vital nutrients. The kernel skins contain corn bran, a fiber that has been shown to lower cholesterol levels. Fresh corn is also a good source of folic acid, the B vitamin that helps protect your arteries. Stir up a cool salad - Corn makes a great addition to any salad. Try it with red and green bell peppers, fresh coriander and your favorite lowfat dressing.

  5. GARLIC  No matter how you like it - fresh, powdered or extracted - garlic an help lower cholesterol levels. And the same compound that reduces cholesterol - thioallyls - may also help prevent blood clots. How much garlic does the trick? Just a clove a day, researchers say. Make a bread spread - Cut off the top of a head of garlic. Drizzle olive oil over garlic, cover with foil and bake in a pan with 1/2 inch of water at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Remove cover and bake for another 10 minutes. Squeeze out the cooked garlic and spread it on toasted bread with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

  6. GRAPEFRUIT  Grapefruit is a nutritional bargain. One half has just 40 calories and lots of heart-healthy nutrients, including vitamin C and folic acid. And if you like pink grapefruit, more good news: Lycopene, which gives pink grapefruit its color, is an antioxidant that helps protect your arteries from cholesterol damage. Freshen up salads - Add grapefruit slices to mixed greens or seafood salads.

  7. OATS  Oatmeal and oat bran are at the top of the list of cholesterol busters. Thanks to the soluble fiber in oats, cholesterol doesn't stand a chance. This fiber attaches itself to cholesterol and carries it right out of your system. Some studies have shown that eating just 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups of cooked oat-bran cereal daily can lower cholesterol levels as much at 20 percent. Make a hot breakfast - Stir up some oatmeal or oat-bran cereal, or add oat bran to your favorite bread and muffin mixes.

  8. OLIVE OIL  When olive oil takes the place of saturated fats (such as butter) in the diet, cholesterol levels and blood pressure may improve. In one Spanish study, when a group of women with high blood pressure were put on an olive-oil rich diet for four weeks, their total cholesterol levels fell, HDL cholesterol levels rose and blood pressure dropped significantly. Pour it on for flavor - Toss olive oil into fresh greens, drizzle it over warm pasta, or use it as a dip for bread. It's also delicious over roasted potatoes and other vegetables.

  9. ONIONS  A cousin of garlic, onions are true to their family and fight hard for your heart's health. The flavonoid quercitin in onions has been shown to prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and damaging artery walls. Yellow, red and Bermuda varieties are packed with them. Top off your favorite foods - Chopped onions work well as a topping for pizza, burgers or baked potatoes.

  10. ORANGES  The king of citrus is packed with an unbelievable array of nutrients. The fiber pectin reduces cholesterol, especially in people with high levels. The antioxidant vitamin C protects artery walls. And the folic acid carries artery-clogging homocysteine out of your system. Whip up a smoothie - Combine 1 peeled orange, 1 cup lowfat frozen yogurt or milk, ice cubes and a splash of vanilla in a blender.

  11. RICE  Both brown and wild rice contain rice bran - a proven cholesterol fighter - and the antioxidant vitamin E. One cup also supplies a healthy dose of folic acid and other B vitamins that help keep your heart healthy. Make a speedy supper - Cooked beans and rice is a great instant meal. Or make a chilled rice salad with your favorite vegetables.

  12. SALMON  Most of the fat in salmon is monounsaturated, the type that helps reduce cholesterol levels. Salmon is also a rich source of omega-3 fats, which may help lower the risk of heart attack. And a serving of canned salmon - with its edible and virtually undetectable bones - gives you a good dose of calcium, a mineral that may help lower blood pressure and strengthen bones. Make dinner in no time - Place salmon in a foil pouch. Add a sprinkle of herbs, a dash of pepper and a touch of white wine. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes.

  13. SOY  Numerous studies have shown that diets containing daily servings of soy protein reduce cholesterol levels and cut heart-disease risk. Try healthy fast foods - Check your local supermarket for soy veggie burgers and soy hot dogs, as well as soy milk and soybeans.

  14. SPINACH  This leafy green attacks heart disease and hypertension with a vengeance. Just 1/2 cup of cooked spinach (or 1 1/2 cups raw) contains an abundance of carotene, which helps keep cholesterol from lodging in your arteries. Spinach is also packed with minerals such as magnesium and potassium that may help reduce high blood pressure, plus a dose of folic acid to help bring down levels of homocysteine. Serve salad with a twist - Make a salad with spinach, orange sections, olive oil and lime juice. Or add fresh chopped spinach as a layer in lasagna or to an omelet.

  15. TEA  Green or black, hot or cold, regular or decaf, brewed or instant - sipping a cup of tea is good for your heart. Tea contains powerful antioxidants called catechins, which may protect artery walls from cholesterol buildup. Catechins also lower the risk of blood clots, which reduces the likelihood of a heart attack. Sip to your heart's content - Make a pitcher of your favorite tea and keep it on hand in the fridge.

  16. TOMATO  Lycopene, the compound that gives tomatoes their color, acts like an antioxidant by keeping cholesterol from building in artery walls. The most concentrated tomato sources of lycopene are tomato paste - which you might add to a pasta sauce or pizza - and tomato juice. Start off smart - Instead of a salad, serve sliced tomatoes with fresh basil and olive oil over slices of toasted sourdough bread.

SURPRISE!  THEY'RE GOOD FOR YOU!

  1. AVOCADOS  Think they're high in fat? They are. But most the fat is heart-smart monounsaturated. According to a number of studies, an avocado-rich diet may help lower levels of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol.

  2. CHEESE  Most cheeses provide a good dose of calcium, and studies show that people who consume adequate calcium have an easier time keeping blood pressure levels in check. Modest amounts of Gruyere, Swiss, Parmesan and cheddar cheese are all good choices for calcium.

  3. CHOCOLATE  Believe it or not, dark, rich chocolate contains phenols, the same heart-protecting substance found in red wine. And though chocolate is high in fat, the fat is stearic acid, which doesn't affect cholesterol levels.

  4. CLAMS  Keep canned clams on hand for quick pastas and chowders. A 3-oz serving has less than 2 grams of fat, and some of it is the omega-3 kind that helps reduce heart-disease risk. Clams also contain substances called sterols, which block cholesterol absorption.

  5. PEANUTS  That little bag of peanuts you get on the airplane is filled with nutrients. Peanuts supply vitamin E - the nutrient responsible for shielding your arteries from damaging cholesterol - plus folic acid, a B vitamin that protects your heart.

  6. WINE  Sipping a glass of wine has a double benefit. The alcohol in wine increases your level of "good" HDL cholesterol; the flavonoids, which are most abundant in red wine, may help protect arteries from cholesterol damage and prevent blood clots. The key is moderation - just one or two glasses daily with meals.

by Liz Applegate, Ph.D.
Woman's Day, Sept 1999