Foods to Heal Your Heart - Genesis Health System

Foods to Heal Your Heart

By Teresa Pangan, Genesis Dietitian

February is American Heart Month. Nearly 1 in 3 or 800,000 people in the U.S. die from heart disease and stroke. It is the number one killer for both men and women. The good news is you can lower your risk of heart disease by as much as 82 percent with what you eat and how active you are.

Keep in mind that more than half these deaths every year are for people under 65, so the best time to start eating heart healthy foods is NOW.

I actually have a family history of heart disease. My father was one of the first open heart surgeries to be performed in the Quad Cities.  He is still kicking at 75 years now thanks to the great heart care he has received. Heart health is a very serious topic for me.

I picked out 5 foods that pack a lot of heart power to share.  There are studies to back up the incredible results of these heart healthy foods.


Oatmeal is famous for the mushy, jelly like glob it makes when combined with water. Amazingly is has Olympic level holding power.  It can bind 200 times its weight in water.  The fiber that is famous for reducing cholesterol in oats is called beta-glucan. Oats are one of the highest sources of this incredible soluble fiber. 

A quick lesson in how it works is by grabbing on to bile and forcing your body to excrete it.  Your liver is then forced to remove some cholesterol (the bad type) from your bloodstream to replenish its supply. The overall effect is lowering the bad cholesterol in your bloodstream.   

There are even a couple other reasons, but I don’t want to bore you.  The main point is to get more of this beta glucan in your diet.  You get it from oats and oat bran.  Oats can be steel cut, old fashioned or instant.

For Heart Patients: The FDA recommends 3 grams a day of beta glucan for those that are diagnosed with heart disease.  If you don’t have heart disease, incorporate oats into your diet a couple times a week. 

The problem you are going to find is the fiber beta glucan is not listed out on food labels. It is part of the soluble fiber but there are other soluble fibers.  For lowering your cholesterol in a serious way, you want to focus on the beta glucan. Here are some amounts to guide you:

Steel-cut oats 1/2 cup dry 4 grams beta-glucan
Quaker Oat Bran 1/2 cup dry 3 grams beta-glucan
Old Fashioned Quaker Oats 1/2 cup dry 2 grams beta-glucan
Quaker Quick-Cooking (higher in sodium) 1/2 cup dry 2 grams beta-glucan
Quaker Instant Oatmeal 1 packet 1 gram beta-glucan
Designer Oatmeal Packets 1 packet 1 gram beta-glucan

Eating oats with at least 3 grams of beta glucan fiber every day, for example, can lower LDL and total cholesterol by 5 to 8 per cent.  People with the highest cholesterol tend to show the most benefit.

Try this: Eat oatmeal for breakfast and sprinkle oat bran into yogurt as a snack.


Almonds are a healthy fat and protein source. They are also good sources of calcium and unique among nuts for their high concentration of vitamin E called alphatocopherol, a natural antioxidant.

A major way that almonds work to lower your cholesterol is by changing shape of the bad cholesterol in your body.  This new shape attaches better to receptors on the liver.  This is good because your liver will then excrete out of your body the bad cholesterol that enters via the receptors.  There are also actions with your platelets that occur so they don’t stick to things as well.  All these actions reduce your bad cholesterol and risk of heart disease. 

For Heart Patients:  Eating 1-1/2 ounce of any kind of almonds daily can lower your bad cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol by 5 to 10 percent. This is 23 to 35 almonds. If you don’t have heart disease I still recommend including almonds in your diet regularly. 

You want to eat them with the skin as much as you can because the skin of the almond has most the flavonoids that work with the vitamin E in almonds to prevent LDL oxidation. 

My favorite way is with chocolate dusted almonds. These are as good as they sound.  I also sprinkle them on my yogurt as a snack.  I have a homemade trail-like mix I make on the run with almonds, high fiber cereal, dried fruit and chocolate chips. 

Caution: nuts and peanuts are two of the top eight major food allergens.  Be courteous of sharing and taking them where there will be a lot of children as some may have an allergy to nuts. Also, they are dense in calories.  If you are eating only when hungry you are fine, but if you get off track and start to just hand over fist into the mouth eat, be sure to pre-portion them out and not sit with the whole bag.

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Remember the saying “eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away.” It has some truth to it.  There is an almost magical property to apples. They are full of soluble fiber, the same fiber classification as oats.  Apples, however, have a fiber called pectin in them, not the beta glucan found in oats. 

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Pectin binds bile juice like oats, but we know that it also changes the makeup of the precursor to bad cholesterol, the LDL particle.  This precursor is called VLDL (very low density lipoprotein). Pectin interferes with an enzyme in the process that results in fewer VLDL packages being made in the liver and sent out into the bloodstream. Fewer of them mean fewer LDL particles in your bloodstream!

Apple peels are also packed with an antioxidant called polyphenols. The polyphenols reduce the ability of platelets to stick together so it is harder for clots to form that can end up blocking arteries.  All this is good and comes from eating apples – both the flesh and peel.

And no, apple juice will not cut it.  An apple has half the calories of an 8 oz glass of juice and none of the fiber that the apple does. The magical part of the apple is in the fiber and the plant compounds that are in and close to the skin of the apple, which are missing when you replace an apple with juice.

For Heart Patients: To lower your cholesterol you want to eat one to two apples a day. Studies find a reduction in LDL cholesterol 8 to 15 percent.

Make sure to wash with water the outside as apples are higher in pesticides.  This comes from the list released by the Environmental Working Group.  You can buy organic, which are a little more expensive. But keep in mind you will get great results with organic or traditional apples. 

Other fun ways to eat apples are apple chips or dried apple rings.

For those that are not diagnosed with heart disease I do recommend eating apples regularly. They are such a portable snack with many health benefits.

Plant Sterol Margarine

Plant sterols margarine is margarine with plant sterols added to them.  This addition means the margarine is a functional food.  Plant sterols are plant compounds found naturally in small amounts in certain fruits and in vegetables, oils, nuts, seeds, and grains. 


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From a lot of research we know these sterols are great at lowering cholesterol. The thing is, it is not possible to eat enough plant foods in a day to get the cholesterol-reducing effect naturally from plant sterol containing foods.

Sterols are molecules that look a lot like cholesterol. So when they travel through your digestive tract, they get in the way. They prevent real cholesterol from being absorbed into your bloodstream. Instead of clogging up your arteries, the cholesterol goes out with the body’s waste.

They are amazing at helping to prevent cholesterol from being absorbed. Eating 2 grams a day can help lower high levels of LDL by 5 to 15 percent and you see results in as little as 2 weeks.

For Heart Patients: These fortified products with plant sterols are more expensive. They cost three times or more the price of regular margarines.  I don’t recommend including these fortified margarines as part of your daily menu unless you have heart disease. The FDA recommends 2 to 3 grams of sterols a day split between at least 2 meals. 

Margarine products you can find in your grocery store are Benecol Margarine. For baking, regular Benecol is the only fortified margarine that does not break down during the baking process.  The other popular brands Promise Activ Take Control will also not work in baking, but fine for spreading on foods.

Soy Protein

High in fiber, low in saturated fat, and cholesterol free, soy protein is a star-studded food. I know your nose may be wrinkling right now. You might be saying to yourself, “She is crazy to think I would eat soy.” 

First, I ask that you keep an open mind.  It is not hard to add soy to your diet. And with a little trial and error it can be delicious, too.

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Soy reduces bad cholesterol because the phytoestrogens in it are similar to the female hormone estrogen.  The phytoestrogens increase the number and effectiveness of the receptors for the bad cholesterol on your liver.  This means the liver then takes up more of the bad cholesterol from your blood stream.  That is very good news.

There are also antioxidants in the soy that prevent plaque buildup.  It prevents the oxidation process from occurring in the arterial wall.

For Heart Patients: The studies show 20 – 25 grams of soy protein a day can lower your bad cholesterol by 8 to 10 percent.  I recommend aiming to get at least 10 – 15 grams a day in if you are a heart patient. We know even some soy protein lowers your cholesterol.   If you don’t have heart disease, I still recommend at least a serving a couple times a week.  There are so many health benefits beyond just heart disease that it is just plain smart to at least give it a try. 

An easy way to add soy into your meals is to switch a glass of milk once a day to soy milk, there is a vanilla variety that you can use on your oatmeal.  And yes, I do drink soy milk every day.  

Also, you can order your coffee at the local Starbucks with soy – tall has 9 grams protein, grande 12 grams and venti 15 grams. 

Edamame is a great easy snack.  Get them in microwave snack size bags and pop them in the microwave for something to munch on.  Kids love them, mine go through two servings at a sitting.   And then smoothies made with silken tofu work great.  You won’t taste any difference, just have a thicker smoothie.  

Soy Food Serving Soy Protein
Van Light Soy Milk 8 oz 6 grams
Edamame 1/2 cup 11 grams
Soy Burger 1 patty 4-10 grams
Soft Tofu (silken) 1/4 brick (3 oz) 6 grams

Take time to show love to your own heart. Invest the time and focus on eating heart healthy foods. It is never too late to start.

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