Nutrition for Life - 2017

Valentine's Day: Heart Health

By Parul Kharod

Om Puri, Carrie Fisher, and George Michael – the world lost these celebrities in the past two months due to heart conditions. Countless others die every day succumbing to heart disease. Every day almost 2,600 Americans die of cardiovascular disease and 7.1 million Americans have had a heart attack during their lifetimes.

The risk is even higher for Asian populations. A 2014 research study by the American Heart Association found that cardiovascular disease causes more deaths for Asian Americans than all forms of cancer combined. Coronary artery disease tends to occur earlier in life and in a higher percentage of the population in Asian Indians than in other ethnic groups.

On this Valentine's Day, make a resolution to start paying extra attention to heart health for yourself and your loved ones. Heart disease can be preventable. Small dietary and lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. It is possible to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and chronic inflammation by knowing what foods to add and what to avoid.

Choose Healthy Fats

The type and quantity of fat in your diet is a very important factor for heart health. In general, aim to eat a low fat diet.

• Unsaturated Fats – the good fats: nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, oils. Avoid fried foods and use very little oil for sautéing and cooking. Use nuts and seeds in small portions; a handful per day or 1-2 tablespoons of peanut butter or almond butter. Buy raw or dry roasted nuts.

• Saturated Fats – the bad fats: fats present in animal foods such as meats and dairy, including cheese. Choose 1% milk and small amounts of 2% cheese. If you eat non-veg, choose small portions of lean meats.

• Trans Fats – the ugly fats! You may have seen Trans fats in form of vegetable shortening (Crisco or Dalda) or partially hydrogenated oils and palm oils. Trans fats are the worst as they can directly raise your LDL cholesterol. Trans fats are used as a preservative, so mostly all snack foods, ready to eat foods, and fast foods have Trans fats in some form. Avoid these as much as possible.

Choose Healthy Carbohydrates

Simple starches and sugars can raise triglycerides, increase insulin resistance, and thus increase the risk of heart disease.

• Choose whole grains. Choose brown rice and other whole grains including whole wheat, brown rice, bulgur, barley, ragi, oats, bajri, jowar, quinoa, whole grain bread and pasta.

• Avoid foods made with maida or enriched bleached flour (all-purpose flour)

• In general, eat less foods made with flour (atta) and choose intact (sabut) grains

• Eat whole fruits. Avoid juices and processed forms of fruit.

• Avoid sugary foods and beverages. Avoid diet drinks.

Don't Overdo Protein

Excessive protein from animal sources has been proven to increase the risk of heart attacks. This includes, meat, dairy, and eggs, and whey protein powders. Overdoing protein can also damage kidneys.

• Tofu is a good source of protein. Moderate intake of soy isoflavones have been proven to lower cholesterol and offer protection against heart disease. Substitute tofu in paneer dishes.

• Limit meats to small portions of 2-3 oz. Limit meat and eggs to 2-3 days per week. Choose very lean meats. If you are at an increased risk for heart disease, go veg! Vegetarian and vegan diets have been proven to prevent and even reverse heart disease.

• Beans and nuts are also good sources of protein. Eat a variety of beans in different forms. Sprouting beans makes them easier to digest.

Limit Sodium

Sodium is a preservative. All packaged foods, including snack foods, frozen meals, instant foods, etc. have extra sodium. Restaurant foods and fast foods also have an excessive amount of sodium.

• Don't keep salt on the dining table

• Limit salty snacks and processed foods

• Limit eating out

• Eat papad, pickles, and other salty foods in moderation

Drink Water

Adequate amount of water is important a number of reasons.

• Drink 6-8 glasses of water

• Avoid other beverages such as soda, juice, Gatorade, Kool-Aid, and other sugary drinks. Avoid their diet versions also.

• Limit alcohol


Daily physical activity has protective influence on the heart. You do not have to join a gym. Make a resolution to move more.

• Get a pedometer or a phone app to count your steps. Increase your activity slowly till you reach the goal of 10,000 steps per day

• Add resistance exercises to strengthen your muscles and bones. Elastic bands or small weights are inexpensive and can be used at home. Yoga and Pilates are also excellent.

Reduce Stress and Anger

Stress and negative emotions such as anger have a negative effect on heart health. These conditions can increase inflammatory hormones and start a chain reaction that can lead to a heart attack. A recent study showed that people who were angry and exercised actually increased their chance of a heart attack.

• Learn to let go. Be forgiving to yourself and others. Do not hoard negative emotions.

• Practice yoga and meditation to learn how to reduce stress

• Take deep breaths

• Take up a hobby or engage in activities that you enjoy and bring positive emotions

Top 10 Foods for Heart Health

• Go Red: Tomatoes, strawberries, pomegranates, red grapes, beets, etc. The color red has many antioxidants and phytochemicals that help lower risk of heart disease.

• Oats: are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium, vitamin B, calcium, and a soluble fiber called beta glucans. Oats can lower cholesterol and help reduce plaque in the arteries.

• Omega 3 fats: omega-3 fatty acids help dilate the blood vessels of the heart and brain. Thus, they can improve blood flow to these vital organs. Research shows that supplements are not as effective. Choose foods with omega-3 such as walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and olive oil.

• Bananas: Bananas are rich in potassium, vitamin C, the B vitamins, tryptophan, and carbohydrates. These nutrients are essential to heart muscle contraction and preventing heart rhythm abnormalities. Bananas can also help lower blood pressure.

• Garlic: contains allyl sulfides, which may help lower cholesterol levels

• Nuts: are filled with unsaturated fats (the good fat), vitamin E, magnesium, protein and fiber. Hence, nuts are good for the heart, blood vessels, and skin.

• Beans: are high in protein, vitamin B, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and fiber.

• Green vegetables: These are rich in lutein, vitamin B, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and fiber. A study shows that low levels of vitamin B6 (found in vegetables) are associated with high levels of C-reactive protein, a known marker for heart disease.

• Soy products, like tofu and soy milk. Soy is packed with protein, vitamin B1, B12, niacin, folate, calcium, and potassium.

• Dark chocolate: contains the wonderful components of resveratrol and flavonoids to protect your heart!

-- Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist and works as a Clinical Dietitian with Outpatient Nutrition Services at WakeMed Hospital in Cary and Raleigh. She can be reached at