Eat your way to a healthy heart
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An individual's lifestyle has emerged as one of the most important determinants in the development of present and future cardiovascular disease. The major benefits of a prudent lifestyle are its significant effects on the cells that line the arteries.

These cells, called the endothelium, are actually considered to be an organ system. The health of the endothelium determines whether you will develop atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up in the arteries, and consequently, an acute or future adverse cardiovascular event.

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Prudent lifestyle behavior signal the endothelial cells to not only be less likely to allow plaque build-up, but more importantly to interfere with the most feared complication of plaque buildup — plaque rupture, which leads to an acute heart attack. A proper lifestyle can also lead to changing plaque morphology which over time leads to less plaque rupture. 

One's diet is obviously a large part of one's lifestyle. To that end it would be important to which specific foods are most beneficial for keeping one's arteries healthy. When we refer to "improving circulation," medically speaking we are referring to reducing the development of arterial plaque.

To that end, a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and whole grains which contain many "phytochemicals " or “phytonutrients” are the best bet. Phytochemicals are biologically active compounds that are found in plant based foods. These substances have many beneficial effects in the body. They reduce inflammatory and other untoward responses that lead to adverse effects on plaque, as well as many disease entities.

These substances reduce what is known as oxidative stress which is the production of free radicals from all the cellular reactions in the body. These free radicals can damage the endothelium and make the LDL, or “bad cholesterol,” more likely to contribute to plaque build-up. In addition, the high soluble fiber content of many plant based foods help to lower LDL cholesterol levels.

There truly is no one plant based food that has been scientifically proven to be the best in improving arterial health/flow/disease. Therefore, it would be wise to enjoy a healthy variety of such foods. In addition to plant based foods, fish based foods with their high fatty acid content, can also improve endothelium function, They also help raise HDL, the good cholesterol" levels which independently act to improve arterial health by their beneficial effects on plaque formation.

Here are certain plant based and fish based foods that deserve honorable mention in their ability to improve circulation by all of the mechanisms mentioned above.

A. Foods high in soluble fiber: 

1. Beans, especially black and Navy

2. Oat cereals, especially steel cut and oat bran

3. Vegetables, especially brussels sprouts and asparagus

4. Fruits, especially oranges, apricots, apples and pears

5. Seeds, especially flaxseed 

B. Foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids:

1.  Plant based: walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds

2.  Fish based: salmon and Mackerel

C.  Foods high in polyunsaturated fats:

1. Oils such as canola and soybean

2. Soybeans/tofu

3. Nuts especially walnuts

4. Seeds especially flaxseed, chia and sunflower

4. Fish especially salmon and mackerel

D. Foods high in monounsaturated fats:

1. Oils, especially olive

2. Avocado

3. Nuts, especially almonds

4. Seeds especially sesame 

E. Foods especially high in flavanoids (Phytonutrients with powerful anti-inflammatory & antioxidant properties): 

1. Fruits: Red/purple grapes, berries, apples, pomegranates, plums and citrus fruits

2. Vegetables: Broccoli, soy, onions, kale, Brussels sprouts

3. Non plant based: Red wine, cocoa, green/black tea

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. However, the message should be clear. A plant based diet including fish rich in omega 3's is one's best bet to minimize inflammatory/oxidative reactions in the body and thereby keep one's arteries healthy, improve circulation and diminish cardiovascular disease.

In closing, it would be remiss not to mention that in addition to the beneficial effects of the food groups and foods mentioned above on arterial health, it is equally important to stress the significance of minimizing your intake of those food groups and foods that work in the opposite manner and lead to increased plaque growth or rupture tendencies and worsening circulation.

These foods are those that are in general, highly processed and high in trans fats, saturated fats, cholesterol and simple sugars.

So, eat well and live long! 

Dr. Herbert Insel, MD, is a leading cardiologist in New York City, repeatedly on the New York Times Magazine's list of “Super Doctors.” He is affiliated with Concierge Choice Physicians, which is dedicated to preventive care options for patients and physicians. Jennifer Insel, MS, Dr. Insel’s daughter, is a New York City nutritionist.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.