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How Functional Foods May Help Your Heart

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD

Have you heard of "functional foods" -- things like cereals, juices, and margarines “fortified” with extra nutrients?

Can they boost heart health? And if so, which nutrients do you need?

First, follow a few simple steps:

  • Eat a variety of whole foods, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
  • Get 30 minutes of exercise most days.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Limit salt.

Once you've made those a habit, these five nutrients, often added to functional foods, may also help keep your heart healthy.

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA are found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and cod, and in smaller amounts in nuts like pecans, almonds, and walnuts. A popular ingredient in functional foods, you can find omega-3 fatty acids added to soy products, milk, yogurt, eggs, cereal, pasta, margarine, and other foods.

Here's how omega-3 fatty acids help body and heart health:

  • Omega-3s may help curb inflammation that can lead to heart attacks.
  • Omega-3s improve blood vessel elasticity.
  • And they make blood clots less likely.

Omega-3 fatty acids may also improve mood and memory and lower the odds of getting rheumatoid arthritis.

2. Plant Sterols and Plant Stanols

Plant sterols and stanols, also called phytosterols, come from  plants. They're naturally in foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Margarines, butter, and spreads with plant sterols and stanols are "one of the better functional food additions to your diet," says dietitian Christine Gerbstadt, MD, author of Doctor's Detox Diet.

Plant sterols and stanols  block the absorption of cholesterol in the lower intestine. That helps lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels.

Two or three grams of phytosterols daily may offer this benefit. You can find phytosterols in fortified margarines, oil, juices, yogurt, milk, and snack bars.

3. Fiber

Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and nuts -- and most Americans don't get enough. You can find fiber added to functional foods like bread, waffles, cereal, and soy milk.

Fiber helps lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol and your risk for heart disease.

It aids digestion, and may help prevent certain cancers.

You need two kinds of fiber: insoluble fiber, found in whole grains and vegetables, and soluble fiber, found in beans, grains, and nuts. Recommendations are 25 grams of fiber every day for women, and 38 grams daily for men.

4. Calcium

Calcium is found naturally in dairy products such as milk and yogurt, and in lesser amounts in foods like leafy greens, beans, nuts, and seeds. Most Americans don't get enough of it. You can find calcium added to juices, breads, and soy products.

Here's how calcium helps body and heart health:

  • Calcium helps in blood clotting.
  • It helps regulates the heartbeat.
  • Calcium also helps conduct nerve impulses.
  • And calcium maintains healthy bones and teeth.

Adults need 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily up to age 50. People over 50 should aim for 1,200 milligrams a day.

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