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Nutrition and Heart Health: Heart Healthy Carbs, Fats and Protein

By: Jennifer Fleming PhD, MS, RD, LDN

We’re identifying certain nutrients in foods and seeing how they impact cardiovascular health. Typically, we’re looking at lipid levels, glucose levels, and blood pressure. Sometimes we look into the endothelial function, and we’re showing that when we consume certain foods, we get certain cardiovascular benefits.

I’ve been involved in studies that include avocados, almonds, walnuts, strawberries, cranberries, chocolate, pistachios–you name it. A lot of them have overlapping benefits. What’s remarkable about that is that sometimes we can see equivalent benefits, if not greater than what someone would get with taking medication. And that’s what has excited me about the research. It’s why we talk about getting a lot of variety in the diet – so that you can get the nutrients your body needs through an array of foods.

We also identify certain nutrients in foods that we can’t always get in the necessary amounts to benefit our bodies. In that case, we do have options like supplementation.
Heart-Healthy Foods by Category
When it comes to nutrition and heart health, you want to be getting adequate amounts of carbs, fats, and protein.

  • Carbs – We want our carbs to be mostly from fruits, veggies and whole grains. Whole grains are going to offer us fiber as well as some other potential heart-healthy nutrients.
  • Fats – As for fats, we don’t necessarily need to go on a “low-fat” diet. We want to take out our saturated fats and replace them with healthy unsaturated fats. And the reason why we call them healthy fats is that they do contribute to a lot of benefits in the body. Avocados are a great example. Avocados are known to provide a lot of monounsaturated fat, which is a healthy unsaturated fat. But they also contribute things like vitamin E, and vitamin E is a potent antioxidant for healthy aging and cognitive health. And what’s nice is you’re getting those vitamins through food, so there is a synergistic effect.
  • Protein – We want the protein to come from either plant-based sources or lean meats like skinless turkey and chicken breasts.

My Favorite Foods in Each Category

There are so many options out there, but some of my favorites include:

– Fish – Salmon, tuna, cod
– White Meat – Chicken breast, turkey
– Legumes – Beans, nuts, lentils (these also offer fiber)

– Nuts – Almonds, pine nuts, walnuts
– Avocados
– Oils – Olive oil, safflower oil

– Tomatoes
– Berries
– Oranges
– Beets
– Whole grain pasta and bread
– Rice and quinoa


What about sodium?

When we get into sodium, I believe that some people are more salt-sensitive than others. We find individuals in which sodium doesn’t have much of an impact on their blood pressure. But in general, we see a direct association between increased levels of sodium and increased blood pressure. Overall, go with whole foods as much as you can because you’re more inclined to get higher sodium levels as you get more and more into processed foods.

If you think about trying to make your diet very balanced and varied, you can get a lot of the nutrients that will support a variety of functions in the body.

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