Berries are very nutrient dense, low in calories and can be added to many different meals or snacked on across the day.
All berries contain moderate to rich amounts of Vitamin C, a nutrient involved in the growth and repair of tissues in all parts of the body, including your blood vessels. Vitamin C is also one of the famous antioxidants that blocks the toxic affects of free radicals; molecules that have been linked to heart disease.
Berries contain modest amounts of potassium, a mineral that can reduce blood pressure with increased intake.
On top of their vitamin and mineral status, berries further contain special plant chemicals called anthocyanins. It’s these compounds that give berries their rich purple and red colours, and interestingly, they function as another antioxidant. Numerous studies have found that a high consumption of anthocyanins is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, potentially because of their affects on reducing blood pressure, reducing arterial stiffness and decreasing inflammation.
Researchers have ranked blueberries as the number one for antioxidant activity, amongst all fruits and vegetables.
Aim to include ½ cup to 1 cup of fresh or frozen berries daily. You can do this by adding them to your morning smoothie, breakfast cereal, yoghurt or simply by snacking on them whole.
2. Fish that are high in omega-3
Oily fish, such as sardines, salmon, mackerel and herring are rich sources of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), both types of essential omega-3 fatty acids. Essential meaning the body is incapable of making them.
Omega-3s are important for heart health as they slow the build-up of fatty material on the inner walls of blood vessels (known as atherosclerosis). They also prevent platelets in the blood from sticking together, which reduces the risk of blood clots. Further to this, they decrease blood triglyceride levels, a type of fat that influences heart disease. They also reduce LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol, and increase HDL (healthy) cholesterol levels. To top it all off, they help to reduce high blood pressure. Omega-3s are therefore clearly a must for heart health.
In addition to their omega-3s, fish also contain rich amounts of protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins.
For primary and secondary prevention of heart disease, it is recommended to aim for 2 to 4 serves of oily fish per week. Fresh or frozen fish are best, however canned are also good sources. Include some fish with some baked or steamed veggies, or have some at lunch on a salad wrap, or with a tossed quinoa salad.
Although one of the healthiest foods out there, fish can be a source of mercury. Mercury is toxic to us in high levels and so it is therefore recommended that some particular groups of people (e.g. pregnant women) limit/avoid the intake of fish that are highest in mercury (e.g. flake and billfish).
If you don't like fish, an omega-3 supplement is recommended.
3. Nuts such as almonds and walnuts
Nuts are rich in unsaturated fats, particularly the monounsaturated kind, contain good amounts of protein and fibre, as well as the micronutrients vitamin E, thiamin, niacin, B6, folate, magnesium and selenium.
Research shows that those who eat nuts regularly are less likely to have heart attacks or die from heart disease than those who rarely eat them.
The unsaturated fats found in nuts helps to lower LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol and increase HDL (healthy) cholesterol, both of which contribute to better heart health.
The fibre in nuts also acts to lower cholesterol via reducing it’s absorption in the digestive tract.
Nuts are also rich in arginine, an amino acid required to make nitric oxide; a compound that acts to relax blood vessels and ease blood blow.
In relation to particular types of nuts, almonds have the highest vitamin E content. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that may assist in preventing plaque build up in arteries.
Almonds also contain beta-sitosterol, a plant sterol that can block the absorption of cholesterol entering into the body.
Walnuts are one of the few plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids; particularly, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Studies show that a higher intake of ALA is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Brazil nuts are a rich source of selenium, another antioxidant involved in blocking the action of free radicals and therefore reducing oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been linked to heart disease.
Almonds and brazil nuts are also good sources of magnesium, a mineral involved in numerous functions linked to heart health including blood pressure control and normal heart rhythms.
To obtain the heart health benefits of nuts, aim for 30-50g (small handful) of unsalted nuts each day. In terms of which nuts to choose, aim for mixed nuts, or alternate your nut choices second daily.