As temperatures drop and winds pick up, heading into fall is a sure sign change is on its way. One healthy change you’ll see in your grocery store is the switch from summer produce to fall fruits, vegetables, and nuts packed with important heart healthy nutrients.
Heart disease is the number one ranked cause of death in the United States, with more than 30 million adults diagnosed with this chronic condition. The umbrella term heart disease, often used interchangeably with the term cardiovascular disease, includes a range of conditions affecting your heart. These conditions include hypertension, arrhythmias, coronary artery disease, and heart defects you’re born with among others. Heart disease results in developing narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to heart attack, chest pain (agina) or stroke.
One of the most effective ways to help prevent and combat this leading cause of death is to choose foods supporting heart health. Fruits and vegetables, along with other healthy plant-based foods, lead the way as some of the most nutrient-packed foods to bring home from the grocery store.
Research supports this – a July 2020 study in JAMA Internal Medicine analyzing more than 415,000 people found those who consumed a high-protein diet relying heavily on plant-based protein sources could reduce their risk for death from heart disease by at least 10 percent. Modifying the choices you make for protein appears to influence your risk of heart disease. That’s because foods such as vegetables, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds, not only are a source of plant-based protein, they also have nutrients such as phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering properties.
To make the best heart healthy choices for this season, here are fall foods to consider:
Garden lovers likely know that broccoli is a cool season vegetable and grows best in fall. Broccoli is also a star veggie for heart health. Besides reducing cholesterol, broccoli also helps keep blood vessels strong. A substance called sulforaphane found in broccoli has anti-inflammatory properties that may be able to prevent or reverse damage to blood vessel linings caused by chronic high blood sugars. Need more fiber? Eat a cup of broccoli, which will provide 10 percent of your daily need. Fiber keeps you feeling fuller longer, helping prevent obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Broccoli also contains B-complex vitamins, helping to regulate or reduce excessive homocysteine, an amino acid that builds up after eating red meat, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.
Ubiquitous with fall, apples are a favorite fruit to take a bite of for heart health. Did you know a single red delicious apple has at least 10 percent of your daily need for both vitamin C and fiber? Vitamin C protects you from viral infections, and fiber may help prevent heart disease by lowering cholesterol.
The unmistakable gorgeous deep red colors of beets are rich sources of the B vitamin folate and betaine, a polyphenol. These nutrients act together to help lower blood levels of homocysteine, which can increase your risk of heart disease by causing artery-damaging inflammation. Beets are also known for reducing blood pressure thanks to their natural source of nitrates which are converted to nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide signals blood vessels to dilate, thereby lowering both systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well as increasing dilation of blood vessels.
This tuber’s bright orange interior means it’s loaded with beta carotene, a red-orange pigment found in colorful vegetables. Beta carotene is a heart healthy antioxidant, helping inhibit the oxidation of other molecules protecting the body from free radicals. Free radicals can cause damage that may result in several chronic illnesses such as heart disease. A medium-sized sweet potato is also packed with about four grams of fiber, good for helping lower total blood cholesterol by lowering low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol levels. High fiber foods may have other heart health benefits such as reducing blood pressure and inflammation.
One of the best fruits supporting heart health is pears. Pears are a nutrient-dense fruit rich in fiber (6 grams) and antioxidants fighting stroke and heart disease risk. The fiber in pears protects your heart by lowering blood pressure and reducing LDL cholesterol. A Harvard study found that for every 10 grams of fiber eaten, heart attack risk goes down by 14 percent. In addition, another study looking at white-flesh fruit like pears found they are particularly high in an antioxidant call flavonoids, believed to ward off strokes.
Eating more cruciferous vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, can help prevent advanced blood vessel disease in older women. In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found eating cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage helped prevent a build-up of calcium in blood vessels, allowing the heart to keep blood circulating throughout the body. Calcium build-up is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke.
Grab a handful of walnuts to protect your heart health. Loaded with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acid, walnuts are a logical choice for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels while reducing blood pressure, two major risk factors for heart disease. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP) in people with high cholesterol. Walnuts paired with eating a heart healthy Mediterranean diet rich in fish, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, olive oil, legumes and beans, can help reduce the incidence of a major cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke.
Uniquely beautiful with their vibrant colors and irregular shapes, winter squash is a sure sign of cooler weather. Common varieties found in supermarkets include butternut, spaghetti, acorn and sugar pumpkins. Winter squash are good sources of the carotenoid, beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, also lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin C and fiber. But it’s their abundance of the mineral potassium, winning winter squash a spot on this list of produce enhancing heart health. One cup of cooked butternut or acorn squash provides about 500 milligrams of potassium or 10 percent of your daily needs. A diet rich in potassium helps blunt the effects of sodium on blood pressure. This keeps blood pressure in a normal range by relaxing blood vessel walls, helping lower blood pressure as compared to potassium-poor diets.
Take home message
This fall fill your grocery cart with nutritious seasonal foods to help improve your heart’s health. You’ll love their fresh and unique flavors and your heart will love the numerous benefits making your cardiovascular system work smoothly without skipping a beat.
Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in dietetics and nutrition from the University of Kansas, and a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and institutional management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for local clinics, an adjunct professor at an area community college where she teaches basic nutrition, and a freelance health and nutrition writer. She is the author of The Nourished Brain: The Latest Science On Food’s Power For Protecting The Brain From Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook. Visit her website at www.eatwelltobewellrd.com.