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How Functional Foods May Help Your Heart

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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.

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