Protect your ticker by choosing healthy fats, fiber, and vitamin-rich foods.
As a health-conscious athlete, you consistently log your weekly mileage, take the stairs when you can, and forgo the side of bacon more often than not. Even so, your healthy habits don’t guarantee immunity from the nation’s top killer. Heart disease and related conditions, including stroke and heart attack, cause 40 percent of American deaths. That’s more than all cancers combined.
The good news? Research has shown that sticking with a healthy diet and regular exercise are among the most effective lifestyle choices you can make to keep your arteries pliable and unclogged. As an athlete, you’ve already got the exercise part down. Here’s how to tweak your diet to include foods with key nutrients that can help keep your heart beating strong.
Heart Smart: Oatmeal and Strawberries
Whole grains and fruit, such as oatmeal and strawberries, are excellent sources of dietary fiber. A study published last year examined 1,300 men over 40 years and concluded that for every additional 10 grams of fiber you eat per day, you reduce your risk of heart disease-related death by 17 percent. Soluble fiber is particularly important for heart health because it lowers LDL, so-called “bad cholesterol,” and flushes it from your system. Insoluble fiber helps move food through the digestive system. Both are important jobs, so “you want to be sure to get a mix of both,” says Sharon Richter, R.D., a New York City-based dietitian who works with ultramarathoners.
How Much: 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily. Most Americans get about half of that.
Other Sources: Both soluble and insoluble fiber are found in all whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
Heart Smart: Salmon
Fatty fish like salmon should be in every runner’s diet. It’s one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids-the powerhouses of polyunsaturated fats. Not only do omega-3s reduce “bad” LDL levels while increasing “good” HDL, but they protect against arrhythmic heartbeats, which can lead to sudden cardiac death. They also keep arteries flexible, regulate blood pressure, and reduce triglycerides (a form of fat) in the blood. Runners in particular can benefit from omega-3s: They fight inflammation, including joint pain, and in a 2008 study at the University of California, researchers found that omega-3 fatty acids can increase oxygen delivery during exercise.
How Much: Eat fatty fish (like salmon and tuna) at least twice a week.
Other Sources: Fish is the most potent source, but walnuts, flaxseeds, and canola oil are good vegetarian options, says Elaine Magee, R.D., author of several nutrition books including Food Synergy.
Heart Smart: Avocados, Olive Oil, and Almonds
Avoiding these foods because of their high fat content means you miss out on heart-healthy nutrients. “You should replace bad fats with the good,” says Richter. Pass on heart-clogging saturated fats (in fatty meats, poultry skin, and cream) and trans fats (in shortening and stick margarine), and choose unsaturated kinds, which include poly- and monounsaturated (avocados, almonds, and olive oil are rich in the latter). Studies show that when monounsaturated fat replaces saturated or trans fats, it increases levels of “good” HDL, which sweeps the “bad” LDL to the liver, filtering it out.
How Much: “A typical diet should be no more than 30 percent fat-and mostly unsaturated sources,” says Richter.
Other Sources: Nuts; pumpkin and sunflower seeds; liquid vegetable oils.
Heart Smart: Red Wine
According to a 2001 article in the journal Circulation, more than 100 studies have shown there’s an inverse relationship between drinking moderately and heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases-reducing heart disease risk by 25 to 40 percent. Various studies have found that alcohol helps prevent artery damage caused by LDL, inhibits blood clots, and raises HDL levels. The additional antioxidants in red wine make it a smart choice. “Its color comes from grape skins, which contain resveratrol,” says Richter. In lab studies, resveratrol appears to stop the arteries from getting blocked by fatty deposits.
How Much: Moderation is key. “That means one drink for women, two drinks for men a day,” says Richter.
Other Sources: All alcohol has heart-healthy benefits, including spirits and beer.
Heart Smart: Cold Cereal
Many cereals are fortified with the B vitamins folic acid, B6, and B12, which break down homocysteine in the blood. Some research suggests this trio may reduce heart-disease risk because high levels of homocysteine, an amino acid, can damage blood-vessel walls. “There’s a well-established association between high levels of homocysteine and coronary risk,” says Riska Platt, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Heart Association. While two recent studies in The Journal of the American Medical Association found the B vitamins had no effect on coronary disease, “the jury is still out,” says Platt. “We’ll have to wait for more research to better understand if lowering homocysteine can in turn help reduce heart-disease risk. ”
How Much: 100 percent of your DV (get it in a bowl of Kashi Heart to Heart cereal).
Other Sources: Folic acid and B6 are in leafy vegetables, lentils, and nuts. Fish, poultry, meat, and dairy supply B12.
This article appeared in the February 2009 issue of Runner’s World