Savvy consumers are paying more attention to what they put into their bodies these days. That’s a smart move, because diet plays a larger role in heart health than most people realize. The heart and blood vessels, collectively called the cardiovascular system, essentially require three relatively simple things to operate at maximum efficiency and to remain at the peak of health—for a lifetime. Adequate sleep is one. Adequate exercise is another. A healthful diet is the third.
The Three Pillars of Health
These are the three pillars of sustainable, vibrant health. And they’re all under your control. That’s remarkable, given that heart disease is our number-one killer. Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, kills more Americans than any other condition. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Fortunately, we now know more about the underlying causes of heart disease. Here’s a hint: it inevitably begins—often years before any symptoms appear—with atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is a condition characterized by stiff, narrow, often clogged, arteries. And it’s directly related to diet and exercise. Lack of exercise damages the delicate lining of the arteries; a tissue called the endothelium. Likewise, a poor diet can contribute greatly to this process. The typical American diet—which features few whole foods, and lots of highly processed simple carbohydrates—tends to be lamentably unhealthful. Conversely, a healthful diet—typically featuring lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, legumes and other whole foods (and plenty of complex carbohydrates)—can go a long way toward preserving the health of the endothelium.
Natural plant-based antioxidants, for example, help prevent oxidative stress; a condition characterized by excess, potentially damaging free radicals circulating in the bloodstream. These chemical entities are highly dangerous, as they are capable of stripping electrons away from molecules within our cells. This can lead to damage and dysfunction, which may accumulate for years and contribute to processes such as aging and disease. Antioxidant compounds, often found in plant foods, help neutralize these dangerous reactive molecules.
Certain “superfoods” excel at boosting health precisely by boosting one’s levels of these helpful antioxidant compounds. Generally speaking, (natural) color is a good indicator that a given food is rich in these potent antioxidant compounds. That’s why deeply colored fruits, such as blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are considered superfoods. They’re rich in these beneficial compounds. Of course, they also supply other necessary nutrients, and when considering whole foods it always makes sense to consider the “whole” food, not just isolated constituents.
Nevertheless, certain superfoods feature rare components that take on outsized importance. Beets are one example. Raw beets are among nature’s richest sources of dietary nitrates, among numerous other healthful nutrients. Nitrates directly affect cardiovascular health, because they supply a raw material the body uses to produce nitric oxide (NO).
NO is used by the body to signal the blood vessels to relax. This promotes blood flow, and helps significantly reduce blood pressure. Of course, high blood pressure is one of the primary risk factors for cardiovascular disease, as it typically accompanies atherosclerosis.
Dietary nitrates, from superfoods like beets, arugula, spinach and other foods, help reduce the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension) and lower the risk of heart disease. Other heart-healthy foods include omega-3 fatty acid-rich cold water fish species, such as salmon or tuna, and heart-healthy oil, such as extra virgin olive oil. The latter is rich in healthful monounsaturated fats, but it also contains some unique, potent antioxidant compounds.
For years, we’ve been told to avoid high cholesterol. Most of us will have out blood lipids checked during routine physical exams, precisely because scientists have identified “bad” LDL-cholesterol as harmful. In the past, this led public health officials to recommend that people avoid high-cholesterol foods. But this advice has fallen out of favor, primarily because we now know that high cholesterol foods, per se, are not the problem. In fact, the cholesterol we get from foods only contributes to a fraction of the overall total of blood cholesterol.
What’s more important, we now know, is the level of oxidation of LDL-cholesterol. Such oxidation reflects the character of one’s overall diet. People who consume a plant-rich diet—full of natural antioxidants—are far less likely to have this type of “peroxidated” cholesterol in circulation. That’s because the antioxidants in foods like beets, berries, peppers, or what have you, contribute significantly to reduced oxidative stress.
If you are concerned about your intake of heart-healthy natural antioxidants and other beneficial compounds from plant foods, perhaps you should consider taking one of our convenient dietary supplements. Taken as directed, these products can help boost your levels of beneficial NO, while supporting a healthy immune system.