Food for thought: Protect your heart, protect your brain

  • Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lauren Zimmerman

Diets trends typically fade in and out of the mainstream media, with one promise failing as the next comes along only to have a similar fate. But what if we ate to protect our heart and brain and just as an outcome, lost weight in the process? More and more research is supporting the notion that a diet good for the heart is good for the brain. And I believe if we focus on health that will transmit to our outward appearance.

The heart pumps about 20 percent of the blood supply to the brain, delivering oxygen, nutrients and antioxidants. Since the brain is nourished by nutrients passed by the blood vessels, protecting brain health is a matter of keeping our heart and blood vessels healthy. Similar risk factors for heart disease and stroke are also linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline.

A heart healthy diet aims to reduce risk factors such as high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, high blood sugars, inflammation and abdominal fat and in turn reduces risk for stroke, dementia, heart attack, and diabetes and certain cancers and carotid artery disease. Furthermore, a heart healthy diet may also preserve memory. A Harvard Health study found women who ate the most saturated fat particularly from dairy and red meat performed worse on tests of memory and cognition than those in a similar population who ate the least amount of saturated fat. Heart healthy diets aim to reduce intake of saturated fat and increase intake of the heart healthy fats, particularly monounsaturated and omega 3 fats. Confused about the types of fats? Stay with me.

The principles of a heart healthy diet are similar to a Mediterranean style of eating; rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats, plant proteins, healthy oils and low in red meats, full fat dairy and butter, salt and sweets. In trying to adapt to this style of eating, focus first on adding in the good.

1. Eat foods rich in antioxidants. In my opinion, one of the most beneficial things you can do for health is eat fruits and vegetables and aim for 3-5 cups daily. Aim for a variety of colors, mostly fresh or frozen and get a good intake of the fibrous, dark skinned produce. Those rich in color are typically higher in antioxidants and these antioxidants quite blankly cannot be extracted entirely into a pill form.

Why are antioxidants important? Well, oxidants are formed as natural byproducts of energy production so we can’t really do anything about their formation. The issue is they have the potential to cause damage inside our bodies as free radicals. Antioxidants help neutralize these free radicals. While we have a built in antioxidant defense system that neutralizes these byproducts, it is important to help the body out through diet. Furthermore, age related conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s reduce the body’s innate defense against oxidative stress so consuming a diet rich in antioxidants may also lessen the effects of these conditions. So get your fill of kale, spinach, brussel sprouts, beets, red peppers, eggplant, prunes, raisins, all the berries, cherries, plums and oranges just to name a few.

2. Add in foods that may help reduce inflammation and cut out the ones that promote it. Certain dietary components can promote low grade inflammation in the body; particularly saturated fat, trans fat and high glycemic foods or really sugary foods. Inflammation is thought by some to set the foundation for many age related diseases. Diets rich in the plant compound luteolin particularly may reduce age-related inflammation in the brain. So add carrots, peppers, celery, olive oil, peppermint, chamomile tea into your diet or cook with rosemary, basil, parsley and thyme.

Cut saturated fat by choosing mostly lean meats such as chicken breast, fish and plant based proteins such as beans and legumes and choosing lowfat or fat free dairy. To avoid trans fats, choose mostly whole foods, avoid packaged foods that have the word partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients and reduce consumption of fried foods eaten in restaurants. For lower glycemic foods, choose whole grains over white, enriched products. Brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread and oatmeal are just a few examples.

3. Focus on the good fats. Choose heart healthy oils over butter and margarine. Canola, olive, peanut, sunflower oils are rich in monounsaturated fats, the good fats. Try adding in avocados and nuts such as almonds, peanuts and seeds to your meals or eat as a snack. These type of fats help promote a stronger HDL which is the good cholesterol that help lower overall risk for a cardiac event and has also been linked with reducing inflammation in the brain. For omega 3s, fish such as wild caught Alaskan salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout and sardines. Don’t like fish? You can also get some omega 3s from plant sources such as ground flaxseed, chia seeds or walnuts. Add these to cereal, oatmeal or yogurt.

Take home message: Eat your fruits and vegetables, mostly fresh or frozen, trim up your intake of dairy and beef fat and don’t be scared of oils and the good fats just watch portions.

Lauren Zimmerman isa Registered Dietitian originally from Rock Hill, but has made the Old Village home over the past few years. She works in a Cardiac Rehabilitation Center where day to day she teaches a heart healthy diet to her patients through weekly education classes and one on one counseling sessions. She lives and breathes healthy eating and enjoys making it practical for those she is helping. Outside of work she enjoys cooking, art, music, bike riding and seeing the ocean as frequently as possible.

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