Foods to prevent heart disease

Many supplements do not thwart heart disease. This has been demonstrated in several studies. Instead, easily available foods are proven to have a greater potential for preventing heart diseases.

Supplements that do not work for heart problems

  • “Vitamin C pills do not appear to lower cholesterol levels or reduce the risk of heart attacks. Effects on cholesterol plaques in heart arteries (atherosclerosis) remain unclear. As for possible beneficial vasodilation (artery opening) properties, based on the current scientific evidence, Vitamin C is generally not recommended for this use.” (Source: Medline Plus, 1 March 2008)
  • A 2004 review of previous studies found that Vitamin E supplements were of no help for treating or preventing heart disease.
  • A 1994 study of smokers found that beta-carotene supplements didn’t protect the heart, but they did raise the risk of lung cancer.
  • The Women’s Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study, which followed 8,171 participants with signs of heart disease for an average of 9.4 years to test the effects of Vitamins C, E, and beta carotene, found that none of the supplements had any effect (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2007).
  • Selenium supplementation also does not protect against cardiovascular disease, a large randomised clinical trial shows (American Journal of Epidemiology, 15 April 2006).
  • Another study of more than 12,000 heart attack survivors found that Vitamins B12 and B9 (folic acid) supplements did not prevent heart disease either, supporting the results of previous trials. The findings by the University of Oxford in England were presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2008 (Cancer Weekly, 25 November 2008).

What Experts Say

  •  Dr Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City: “We have been optimistic about the role of antioxidants such as Vitamin B in preventing heart disease, yet many of these large trials have shown that there is no benefit … (A)t this point, it is certainly hard to recommend extra supplements when we don’t have proof of benefit. What we can recommend is a diet with fruits and vegetables that have antioxidant vitamins in them.” (Journal of the American Medical Association, 20 August 2008)
  • Dr Ray Gibbons, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in the US: “These things (supplements) are very attractive to patients because they are perceived as natural, inexpensive and they are widely advertised. Many people have the perception that they are equivalent to heavily researched pharmaceuticals.”
  • Dr David Winter of Baylor Medical Center in the US said a person’s body does not absorb vitamins from a pill the way it absorbs vitamins from food. “The best way to get vitamins is from fruits and vegetables, not from a pill … When your body absorbs a pill … it can turn around and absorb less vitamins, we’re told.”
  • Melissa Ohlson, RD, coordinator of the US Cleveland Clinic’s preventive cardiology and rehabilitation nutrition program: “While fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods clearly protect the heart, it’s evidently impossible to capture that power in a pill.”(, 9 April 2008)

What to Eat

For heart disease, like cancer, good foods outshine supplements. Simple food choices — fruits; vegetables; nuts; grains; legumes; onion; garlic; olive oil; fish; foods rich in Vitamins C, E and beta carotene — go a long way when it comes to your heart’s health.

What you eat is a major determinant in how quickly and severely your arteries get clogged. The right diet can help keep vessels open, free of hazardous clots and flexible enough to serve as healthy conduits for blood flow.

The following are some heart-friendly foods, compiled from various sources, including Jean Carper’s 1993 book, Food — Your Miracle Medicine.

Fish. People who eat fish regularly, even just twice a week, enjoy a reduced risk of heart disease and sudden cardiac death, studies show. The evidence of fish’s preventive and therapeutic powers against cardiovascular disease is compelling. If you could look inside people’s arteries, you would see that the healthiest ones belong to fish eaters and the most diseased ones to non-fish eaters.

In an experiment, Danish researchers obtained arteries and fat tissue from 40 autopsies at Frederiksberg Hospital in Denmark. They measured the fish oil in the fat tissue, which revealed how much fatty fish the individual had eaten while alive.
Undeniably, the smoothest, cleanest arteries belonged to those with the most omega-3 fat in their tissue — who had eaten the most fish. And the most seriously clogged arteries belonged to those with the least omega-3 fat in their tissue.

Fish oil fights heart disease in 10 ways:
(1) Blocks platelet aggregation (clotting)
(2) Reduces blood vessel constriction
(3) Increases blood flow
(4) Lowers fibrinogen (clotting factor)
(5) Revs up fibrinolytic (clot-dissolving) activity
(6) Blocks cell damage from oxygen free radicals
(7) Lowers triglycerides
(8) Raises good HDL cholesterol
(9) Makes cell membranes more flexible
(10) Lowers blood pressure

Packed with this monounsaturated fat, fish “allow for the absorption of other carotenoids — especially beta carotene and lycopene — which are essential for heart health,” says cardiologist Stephen T. Sinatra, MD, author of Lower Your Blood Pressure In Eight Weeks. Most oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and fresh tuna contain protein and antioxidants (zinc, selenium., Vitamin A), as well as Vitamin D, and some B vitamins. Salmon also contains the carotenoid astaxanthin, which is a very powerful antioxidant, says Dr Sinatra.

[Useful Tip: But fish also contains cholesterol, you may have heard. True, generally fish contains between 0.5-1.2 mg cholesterol per gram — which is very similar to the cholesterol in beef, chicken breast or bacon (which is about 1 mg cholesterol per gram). Although the cholesterol in fish is not much better than what you would find in meat, because fish mostly have very little fat in them and fish have almost nil saturated fat, there is almost nothing in fish for our body to convert to cholesterol. Meat on the other hand, with its saturated fat, can fuel the body with the saturated fat to make cholesterol.]

Shellfish. For years, shellfish has been wrongly branded a dietary villain. But it is making a comeback as a heart-healthy food. Shellfish was long thought to contain dangerously high levels of cholesterol, but the levels, according to health experts, are actually comparable to those in lean cuts of beef and chicken. You can thus substitute shellfish for other animal-type proteins.

Studies have shown a significantly reduced risk of sudden cardiac death among men who ate shellfish at least once a week. In tests by Marian Childs, Ph.D., a lipid expert, formerly at the University of Washington in the US, 18 healthy men with normal cholesterol substituted specific shellfish for 3-week periods for their ordinary animal-protein foods like meat and cheese. Not a single one of 6 common shellfish (oysters, clams, crabs, mussels, shrimp, squid) boosted blood cholesterol. Just the opposite — the oyster, clam and crab diets lowered both total cholesterol and detrimental LDL cholesterol. Oyster and mussels improved the good HDL cholesterol ratios.

Shrimp and squid did not raise cholesterol, but neither did they lower it. Thus Dr Childs does not recommend eating shrimp or squid to improve cholesterol. (The cholesterol formula that will reduce the risks of developing the build-up of plaque in the arteries is low LDL and high HDL.) (Source: Carper, 1993).

[Note: Some shellfish raise LDL levels but also increases HDL because of the fish oils it contains. (A 3.5-ounce serving of most shellfish contains 200-400mg of beneficial omega-3 fats.) The two increases cancel each other out so there is no net increase in cholesterol levels from eating it.]

  •   A 4-year study of men in Shanghai, China suggest that eating fish and shellfish weekly reduces the risk of fatal heart attacks in middle-aged and older men (American Journal of Epidemiology, 2001; Vol. 154, No. 9: 809-816).
  •   A study showed that subjects who ate 10 ounces (280 grams) of shrimp daily for 3 weeks had reduced levels of triglycerides (blood fats that can clog arteries). One reason is that crustaceans (such as lobsters and shrimp) and mollusks (oysters, clams, and mussels) contain omega-3 fatty acids, which may control blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Among shellfish, oysters, mussels, and crabs contain the most. (Source: Ground Report, 7 May 2009)

For more important and useful tips on how fruits, vegetables and berries can help to prevent heart disease, please read Utusan Konsumer May-June 2009.