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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Dr Eki Wari on March 13, 2022

What Is A Heart Healthy Diet?

Do you know what foods are part of a heart healthy diet? This guide explains the importance of good nutrition for heart health, and tips for what to eat to support your cardiovascular system.

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Your doctor recently told you that you need to start eating a heart healthy diet, but you thought you already were. Now you’re more confused about nutrition than ever. Does this sound familiar?

A heart healthy diet is one that includes healthy fats and fiber from whole foods. It also omits refined sugars and other potentially dangerous foods for your heart.

In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of a heart healthy diet, the best foods for heart health, and natural remedies to support your cardiovascular system.

Why Was I Told To Eat A Heart Healthy Diet?

Americans are dying from cardiovascular-related disorders at an alarming rate. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death for people in the United States, and one person dies of cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds.

High blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, being overweight, and obesity are key risk factors for heart disease. If you were diagnosed with any of these conditions, then your doctor probably told you to eat a heart healthy diet.

Importance Of Heart Health From A TCM Perspective

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views the physiological functions of the heart as governing blood and vessels. Similarly, Western medicine views the heart as a pump that generates pressure to transport blood through the body.

However, Western medicine emphasizes the structure and function of the heart within the circulation system only. Meanwhile, TCM views the organ as a system and emphasizes the relationship between the heart system and other body parts.

According to physician Lim Sock Ling, “From TCM’s perspective, the heart is where the “spirit” resides. The prognosis of illness and internal body condition are reflected as a presence or absence of spirit. The tongue is the orifice of the heart. Imbalances in the heart can be reflected in the appearance of the tongue. In addition, the complexion of the face reflects the health status of the heart. If one appears rosy and radiant, it is likely to imply adequate heart blood with good circulation.” 

In TCM, the five-element theory suggests heart is related to Fire. Although such a theory does not exist in Western medicine, the heart is indeed the engine to drive blood circulation in the body and keeps the person alive, thus there is resemblance of energy that the Fire element represents. 

What Are The Makings Of A Heart Healthy Diet?

Choose foods that are high in “good” fats, such as avocado, almonds, seeds, olive oil, and salmon.

Your diet plays an important role in determining your heart health. It can even help reduce some of the risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Here are some tips for eating a heart healthy diet.

1. Choose Healthy Fats

Healthy fats refer to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Research shows that these fats are linked to better heart health. Examples of foods that contain “good” fats include avocados, wild salmon, nuts and seeds, and olive oil,

Additionally, to keep your heart functioning at its best, reduce your intake of saturated fats and trans fats. Examples of foods that contain “bad” fats include red meat and vegetable oil, such as canola and cottonseed oil.

2. Eat More Fiber From Whole Foods

Fiber has been shown to decrease risk factors associated with heart disease, including high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity.

Get your fiber from whole food sources, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. These foods have the added benefit of being high in antioxidants, which also support heart health by reducing free radical damage.

Other high-fiber foods to include in your diet are whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice), beans and legumes (chickpeas, peas, and lentils), and psyllium husk.

3. Swap Animal Protein For Plant Protein

Another way to reduce your intake of “bad” saturated fats is by eating more plant protein instead of animal protein.

Research shows that eating more plant-based foods can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is because plants are high in fiber and antioxidants, and low in saturated fat.

Try reducing your intake of meat and including more whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and tofu in your diet. Also, keep in mind that white meats like fish and chicken are healthier than red meats.

4. Cut Out Processed Foods

In addition to eating a heart healthy diet, you’ll need to omit foods that are potentially bad for your heart.

This includes foods containing refined sugar, sweets, processed meats, packaged snacks, white flour, and conventional dairy.

It’s also advisable to limit your intake of alcohol or enjoy a glass of red wine at dinner. Soda and sweetened beverages should also be avoided.

5. Watch Your Sodium Intake

Eating too much salt may increase your risk of high blood pressure. If you are trying to eat a heart healthy diet, then watch your intake of canned foods, salty snack foods (like chips and pretzels), and fast food, frozen meals, and fried foods.

Best Herbs For A Heart Healthy Diet

Eating foods that are high in fiber can help support heart health.

Here are some beneficial TCM herbs you can add to your heart healthy diet:

  • San qi or Panax notoginseng: This helps to activate blood circulation of the whole body. It is beneficial for reducing lipids and it has an anti-inflammatory effect on atherosclerosis.  
  • Red sage root: This increases blood flow and dissipates blood stasis, improving heart and blood function, and is mainly used to treat cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. It is beneficial for myocardial ischemia as it can widen coronary arteries to increase coronary blood flow. 
  • Safflower: The linolenic and linoleic acids in safflower seed oil might help prevent the hardening of the arteries as well as lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. It contains chemicals that may thin the blood to prevent clots, widen blood vessels, lower blood pressure and stimulate the heart. 
  • Ge Gen and hawthorn fruit: These have the function to dilate the coronary arteries, which can be used in treating mild cases of coronary heart disease. Hawthorn fruit also helps to reduce cholesterol levels.
  • Curcuma root: This helps angina symptoms and clinical outcomes.
  • Ligusticum wallichii: This promotes blood flow and removes blood stasis, improves microcirculation, and prevents the proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cells. 
  • Red yeast rice: Red yeast rice contains monacolin K (commonly known as lovastatin), which helps to reduce lipids. In a 5-year study of patients with prior myocardial infarction, red yeast rice resulted in a 4.7% absolute and 45% relative risk reduction in the primary endpoint of nonfatal myocardial infarction and cardiac death, as well as a 33% decrease in total mortality.

Other TCM Treatments For Heart Health

Acupuncture helps improve qi and blood circulation, which benefits heart health. There are several studies that suggest acupuncture improves angina symptoms such as chest pain or chest tightness and blood pressure while reducing stress and improving overall quality of life. Acupuncture also has a positive effect on the nervous system, which plays a role in the regulation of the heart.

Exercise is also important for heart health as it promotes blood flow and reduces stress. Tai Chi is one form of exercise that promotes stretching and good circulation. Breathing and meditating help one to tranquilize the nerves and relieve stress, which are factors causing poor qi and blood circulation. 

Physician Lim stated, “Incorporating TCM concept into diet, i.e. diet therapy helps to improve not only the heart but general well-being. Specifically for the heart, you may add more food that is red in color, according to the five element theory. Food such as red dates, red apples, beef, and black tea are beneficial to warm the heart.” 

Heart Healthy Diet Safety Precautions

Be sure to consult with your doctor before taking any herbs, especially if you are on medication. The Journal of the American College of Cardiology indicates that patients on heart drugs are at risk for adverse interactions when they are concurrently taking herbal supplements, such as ginkgo Biloba, St. John’s wort, and garlic. Below are the possible adverse reactions: 

  • St. John’s wort has been shown in some studies to decrease the effectiveness of the arrhythmia drug digoxin, as well as hypertension medicine and statins. 
  • Herbal remedies alfalfa, angelica sinesis, bilberry, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, and ginkgo bilo were identified as an increased bleeding risk when used with the anti-clotting drug warfarin. 
  • Research shows that ginseng and green tea decrease the blood-thinning effect of warfarin. 
  • Ephedra has been linked to stroke, heart attack, seizures, and death from cardiac arrhythmia. 

“Although not an herb, it’s worth mentioning that grapefruit juice can increase dosages of some drugs to toxic levels by inhibiting a key enzyme in the intestine that breaks down the medications. Therefore, patients concurrently taking statins for cholesterol and grapefruit juice may end up with blood statin levels 3-4 times higher than intended. Hence, it is advisable to avoid grapefruit if you are taking medication,” added physician Lim.

For the best heart healthy diet, work with your doctor and a registered TCM practitioner to ensure safety and accuracy.

References

  1. CDC. 2022. Heart Disease Facts.
  2. Cleveland Clinic. 2018. Heart Healthy Diet.
  3. PubMed. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2015. Saturated Fats Compared With Unsaturated Fats and Sources of Carbohydrates in Relation to Risk of Coronary Heart Disease.
  4. PubMed. Journal of Chiropractic Medicine. 2017. Dietary Fiber Is Beneficial for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: An Umbrella Review of Meta-analyses
  5. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2019. Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults.
  6. Science Direct. Complementary and Alternative Therapies and the Aging Population. 2009. Integrating Comprehensive and Alternative Medicine into Stroke.
  7. Science Direct. 2018. Integrative Approaches to the Management of Patients with Heart Disease.
  8. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). 2019. The Effects of Traditional Acupuncture on Mechanisms of Coronary Heart Disease.

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