Nutrition for a healthy heart

Even though I'm a dietitian, I'm still amazed at the role food can have in lowering our risk of diseases and keeping us healthy. Even if there's a genetic tendency toward something like heart disease, making good lifestyle choices can make a difference when it comes to whether that tendency leads to a heart attack.

Research found that although some people are at high risk from a single gene, most inherited heart disease risk stems from a combination of multiple genes. Among these people, a healthy lifestyle reduces the risk of events, such as heart attack or death, by nearly 50 percent, according to Dr. Skear Kathiresan, a cardiologist and director of the Center for Genomic Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. The research was presented at the recent American Heart Association Scientific Sessions.

Environmental Nutrition newsletter recommends four steps for better nutrition for your heart.

--Cut sodium. Just cutting 1,000 mg of sodium per day lowers heart risk. Boost the veggies, fruits, low-fat dairy, whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts. And reduce the amount of saturated fat, red meat, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. Most sodium comes from processed foods. Make your own soup rather than canned varieties. And if you choose canned vegetables, go for no salt added.

--Maintain a healthy weight. Research shows a weight loss of 5 to 10 percent of current body weight helps reduce the risk of heart disease. How to start? Drink more water, unsweetened tea, coffee or bubbly water instead of sodas or other high sugar drinks. Choose smaller portions and increase exercise. Even walking helps.

--Choose complex carbohydrates and healthier fats. High LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides are both risk factors. To lower those, choose high-fiber foods and a Mediterranean style diet that emphasizes moderate amounts of fat from olive oil, seafood such as salmon, nuts, chia, flax and avocadoes.

--Choose more fruit, less dessert. We know sugar can put on weight, but too many added sugars can also raise blood pressure and blood triglycerides and is linked with increased risk of heart disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars (less than 200 calories for a 2,000 calorie diet).

Q and A 

Q: Does ground flaxseed have more health benefits than whole flaxseed? 

A: Flaxseed has several components that are beneficial for human health. First, it contains a relatively large amount of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, which is recognized as essential for human health. Second, flaxseed is rich in dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. Third, it has the highest content of lignans of all plant foods used for human consumption. (Lignans are plant chemicals that some has suggested may have anticarcinogenic and anti-viral properties.) Flaxseed is also a good source of magnesium and several B vitamins. The main difference between whole and ground flax seeds is digestibility. When whole seeds are consumed, they may pass through your intestine undigested because the outer shell of a flaxseed contains insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water. Studies have shown that crushing and milling flaxseed makes it more likely the components will be available to be absorbed. Thus, flaxseed should be cracked or ground in order to obtain its full nutritional value and health benefits. However, ground flaxseed loses its freshness more quickly than whole seeds. So it's best to refrigerate whole flaxseeds and then crush or grind them in a coffee grinder as needed. --Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter.


Here's a recipe for some quick Chicken Marsala, from Cooking Light, that can be on the table in 20 minutes or less. Serve it over polenta, mashed potatoes or brown rice.

Quick Chicken Marsala 

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 (4-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast cutlets

3/4 teaspoon black pepper, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

1 (8 ounce) package presliced button mushrooms

4 thyme sprigs

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

2/3 cup unsalted chicken stock

2/3 cup Marsala wine

2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high. Sprinkle chicken with 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add chicken to pan; cook until done, about 4 minutes per side. Remove chicken from pan. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to pan. Add mushrooms and thyme sprigs; cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are browned, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle flour over mixture, cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Add stock and wine to pan; bring to a boil. Cook until slightly thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove pan form heat. Stir in butter, remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add chicken to pan, turning to coat. Discard thyme sprigs before serving. Sprinkle with chopped thyme, if desired. Serves 4 (serving size: 1 cutlet and about 1/4 cup sauce).

Per serving: 344 calories, 28 g protein, 9 g carbohydrate, 17 g fat, 1 g fiber, 567 mg sodium.

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