Odds are you've got baby boomers coming into your store asking for foods that'll help them lose weight and lower their cholesterol—two key players in heart disease. The bad news: Heart disease still ranks as the No. 1 killer in the United States. The good news: Experts agree that your customers can dodge a deadly outcome through their food choices. Not long ago, nutritionists and doctors advised people to indulge in carbohydrates and fat-free foods. Today we know that some fats actually prevent heart attacks, and that certain carbohydrates are better for cholesterol than others. What else makes for ? ahem, hearty fare?
Numerous studies point to the vast health benefits—from reduced joint inflammation in arthritis sufferers to brain development in babies—of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. When it comes to heart health, omega-3s support circulation and improve blood vessel function, according to Debra Boutin, R.D., assistant professor at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash. Researchers have also found that omega-3s can prevent heart-attack deaths. "They stop the electrical disturbance, which causes the death. Half of all heart attacks are fatal due to these arrhythmias," says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
How much helps? Each week, eat one to two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish, such as wild Alaskan salmon, anchovies, herring or mackerel. Wild Alaskan salmon gets the thumbs up from Boutin for its sustainability, low mercury levels and lack of additives. Also, baking or poaching at low heat helps preserve omega-3s, Boutin says. Vegetarians can try a plant-based option: Add omega-3-rich ground flaxseeds to oatmeal, smoothies or salads.
Ever wonder why packages of oatmeal can wear the fabulous Food and Drug Administration heart-health claim? Picture the gel oatmeal forms in your bowl as it cools. In your body, this gluey beta-glucan, or soluble fiber, binds to bile acids in the intestines and stomach and excretes them as waste. To make more bile acids, the liver needs cholesterol, which it takes from the blood. The result? Lower blood cholesterol levels.
How much helps? "You need 3 grams of soluble fiber a day for a 5 percent reduction in cholesterol," Ohlson says. "A cup and a half of cooked oatmeal is a good portion." Jazz up flavor without sugar by using frozen berries, nonfat plain yogurt and almonds.
Low-glycemic whole grains
Mozaffarian names two reasons to avoid high-glycemic foods like potatoes, white bread and white rice. First, immediately after you eat them, you get a burst of glucose and insulin that's harmful. "In the long term, repeated bursts tire out the pancreas, which produces insulin," he says. "This increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease." Also, emerging evidence shows that if you have high-glycemic foods at one meal, you'll be hungrier and eat more at the next. "In that way, high-glycemic foods are associated with weight gain," Mozaffarian says. And people with excess fat are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors, according to the American Heart Association.
How much helps? Focus on true whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa and barley, and try to swap them for refined grains as often as possible, Mozaffarian says. Because breads labeled "whole grain" may have relatively low amounts of actual whole grains, you can't always rely on the words printed on packages, he says. Instead, opt for bread that lists a whole grain, such as "whole wheat flour," as the first ingredient, and make sure the bread contains at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. People who are slightly overweight, older or inactive will benefit most from whole grains. "If you're young, lean and a runner, it might not make much of a difference," Mozaffarian says. "But a third of kids and two-thirds of adults are overweight, so even kids should eat low-glycemic foods if they're overweight or inactive."
Remember when we feared the pounds we'd put on if we indulged in a few fat-filled nuts? Now you have permission to go a little nuts about their unsaturated fats that help lower cholesterol and don't necessarily widen waistlines. Some nuts offer even more nutrients for your ticker: Walnuts contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Almonds boast calcium, which helps the heart muscle contract. And Brazil nuts have selenium, a heart-protective antioxidant.
How much helps? Enjoy a handful (about 1 ounce) each day. Ohlson suggests adding about 10 almonds to oatmeal, muffin batter or a salad. Or spread nut butter on apple slices. Nuts do pack a lot of calories into a tiny package—about 160 to 200 calories per 1-ounce serving—so go easy. "Too much of a good thing is not good anymore," Ohlson says. If you have a nut allergy, top your salad with olives, which also contain unsaturated fats.
Like oatmeal, beans contain soluble fiber to reduce cholesterol and keep arteries in the free and clear. Also, by swapping out meat for the healthy plant-based protein contained in black, kidney, pinto or navy beans, you'll cut back on saturated fats, which raise cholesterol. How much helps? Boutin recommends eating beans four to five times a week. "You can hide beans in lots of places," she says, and recommends layering beans in lasagna, adding them to taco filling or using several types as the "meat" in an all-bean chili. Ohlson likes to process garbanzo beans into a hummus dip for veggies or combine black beans with corn and tomatoes for a salad. If you don't tolerate beans, buy canned varieties without added salt and rinse thoroughly. Or when cooking dried, presoaked beans, add kombu (a sea vegetable) to the pot to help break down the components that cause gas. Another helpful hint: Build up bean servings slowly. "Your body does adapt over time," Boutin says.
The more vibrantly colored a fruit or vegetable, the more disease-fighting phyto?chemicals, or bioflavonoids, it typically contains. Brilliant blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and other berries have strong antioxidant properties that may help protect against heart disease. Plus, they're low in calories and high in fiber.
How much helps? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 2 cups of fruit each day for general health. As part of your fruit intake, Boutin suggests eating as many berries as you can tolerate. "Berries are pretty self-limiting," she says. "If you eat too many, you usually get diarrhea." In spring and summer, go for fresh, local berries. In winter, use frozen berries to top oatmeal, mix into smoothies or add to yogurt. And experts say it's wise to choose organic berries whenever possible, to avoid pesticides. Low-growing conventional strawberries made the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list of most contaminated fruits and vegetables.
Pamela Bond is an Eldorado Springs-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 12/p. 32