How Functional Foods May Help Your Heart

From the WebMD Archives

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.

5. Vitamin D

As with calcium, most of us don't get enough vitamin D. It's often added to milk, yogurt, and cheese. You can also find vitamin D-enriched juices, cereals, and margarine.

Here's how vitamin D helps body and heart health:

Although too little vitamin D can be linked to a raised risk of stroke, heart disease, and heart failure, the jury is out on exactly how vitamin D affects the heart, says Washington dietitian Kerry Neville. Most adults need 600 international units of vitamin D daily.

Remember, eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, staying active, and keeping up on routine exams are the cornerstones of heart health. If you think you need help in any of those areas, talk to your doctor for tips on which nutrients you need and how best to get them.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on February 25, 2014



Elaine Magee, RD, MPH; author, Food Synergy and Tell Me What To Eat If I Suffer From Heart Disease.

Christine Gerbstadt, MD, MPH, RD; medical director, Mobile Medical Corp.

Kerry Neville, MS, RD, dietitian, Seattle.

Susan Moores, MS, RD, nutrition consultant, St. Paul, MN.

Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, dietitian, Boston; author, MyPlate for Moms: How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better.

Cleveland Clinic: "Plant Sterols and Stanols."

Tufts University School of Medicine: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids."

Harvard School of Public Health: "Calcium and Milk: What's Best for Your Bones and Health?" "Vitamin D and Health."

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010."

American Heart Association: "Whole Grains and Fiber."

© 2012 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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