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A Heart-Healthy Diet: Wining and Dining the Heart

Fish Oil and the Heart-Healthy Diet

Eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent heart disease. Good choices include fatty fish such as salmon, lake trout, mackerel, sardines, and albacore tuna, according to the AHA.

Fish oil contains docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Lichenstein has reviewed many studies on fish oil and cardiovascular disease, and most of the evidence associates DHA and EPA with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, she says. People who report eating two or more servings of fish per week have a lower risk, she adds.

How do omega-3 fatty acids help to promote heart health? Experts don't know for sure. "It's still open to debate," Lichenstein says.

But whatever the reason, there is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids cut risk of death, heart attack, and dangerous heart rhythms in people with cardiovascular disease, according to the NIH. Omega-3 fatty acids also lower "bad" LDL levels, mildly decrease blood pressure, and lower levels of a blood fat called triglycerides.

Getting omega-3 fatty acids from food is best, the AHA says. It recommends at least two servings of fish per week. But people with coronary artery disease or high triglycerides may want to talk to their doctor about taking a supplement if they're not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.

Cholesterol-Lowering Foods and the Heart-Healthy Diet

Cholesterol-lowering margarines that contain plant sterols have been shown to decrease "bad" LDL cholesterol levels. Other foods that are sterol-fortified include some orange juices, chocolate bars, yogurt, and more.

Though these cholesterol-lowering products seem to be effective, they should be part of a comprehensive heart-healthy diet, one that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, experts say.

Fruits, Vegetables, and the Heart-Healthy Diet

Many people take antioxidant supplements, such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta-carotene, to prevent heart disease, but there's no proof that dietary supplements help, experts tell WebMD.

"We've been very disappointed with supplements in general, especially with respect to cardiovascular disease, in the past three or four years," says Lichtenstein, who co-wrote the AHA's scientific advisory on antioxidant vitamin supplements and cardiovascular disease.

"All the major vitamin E intervention studies have shown no significant effects," she adds. Many people take vitamin E on the widely held belief that it may help prevent or delay heart disease.

Instead of relying on diet supplements, you should follow a heart-healthy diet, Lichtenstein says. "We know that diets high in fruits and vegetables are associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer."

Why the benefit? It could be substances in the fruits and vegetables themselves. Or people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables may be eating fewer unhealthy foods, or perhaps they're more likely to exercise and not smoke, Lichtenstein says.

To make sure you eat a wide variety of foods, aim for "a rainbow of fruits and veggies," says Judith Levine, RD, MS, a registered dietitian with the American Heart Association's San Francisco office. Some examples:

  • Red: watermelon, red grapes, strawberries, cranberries, tomatoes, apples, beets
  • Orange/Yellow: carrots, sweet potatoes, oranges, tangerines, lemons, apricots, cantaloupe, butternut squash
  • Green: spinach, kale, collard greens, lettuce, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes, Brussels sprouts
  • Blue/Purple: purple cabbage, eggplant, raisins, figs, blackberries, blueberries, purple grapes, plums, prunes
Reviewed on February 04, 2011

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