Contributed by Deanna Minich, Ph.D.
From our book Bypassing Bypass, published in 2002.
The heart takes on a mystical quality for most of us for good reasons. Not only is it crucial to our health, daily performance and life, it is the seat of emotions and the divining rod between body and spirit. When you know your heart, feel through your heart and perceive with your heart, you become the very essence of your being.
How many of us are truly connected to what we feel in our internal depth? Given its importance to life itself and the emotional energy generated by our hearts, most of us have difficulty actually “being in our heart”. Heart disease can result when we harden ourselves to our true feelings. Ultimately, we paralyze our true self, causing pain so intense it can feel like a heart attack.
Since we are complex beings made of many different layers, I believe that matters of the heart should be approached holistically by addressing physical (diet and exercise), emotional and spiritual needs. I make a conscious effort to combine these factors in assisting someone in the healing process. The focus of this article will be primarily on nutrition, or nourishment, for the heart from food. What we eat, how we eat and what we feel and think when we eat can influence each aspect of our being, especially our heart. Conversely, our heart can play a role in our food choices and style of eating. Therefore, food and nutrition play an integral role in our heart health.
In general, my approach to health through eating is through whole foods. The goal is to get as many nutrients from nature as possible. My cornerstone belief is that we need to eat according to nature and our body’s physiology in order to feel a sense of well-being and prevent us from disease. It is essential to integrate appropriate food choices and perspectives on eating into a way of life.
The heart energy center is often referred to as being green- or sometimes rose-colored. Foods, which are green in color, such as vegetables, are very harmonious for the heart energy. Examples of excellent green vegetable choices would be spinach, collards, kale, dandelion, mustard greens, turnip greens and Swiss chard. Additionally, sprouts are superb sources of highly concentrated nutrients and contain relatively large amounts of living enzymes that assist in the digestion and assimilation of other foods.
Although I give special attention to the green vegetables, essentially all vegetables are beneficial for the heart and consuming a variety is key. Deeper, darker colors of vegetables tend to have higher levels of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, which are good for the heart – for example, spinach contains more carotenoids (e.g., lutein) than iceberg lettuce.
Most people eat too few vegetables daily, usually between 2-3 servings. Ideally, this amount should be increased to as much as 10 servings a day or at least half the volume of food intake. Keep in mind that a serving is probably smaller than you might think (1 cup of raw vegetables, ½ cup of cooked vegetables). Organic produce would be my first choice.
From a scientific viewpoint, there are several reasons why vegetables are amazing foods for the heart.
When you substitute vegetables for other foods like those containing high amounts of fat and sugar, you reduce the number of calories per bite. They also contain high amounts of fiber, which can lead to feelings of fullness. As a result, eating vegetables may displace some other foods in the diet, which are not heart-healthy.
Select vegetables, especially leafy greens, contain various levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fats (see section on fats below).
Vegetables are rich sources of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants such as carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene), vitamin C, folate, iron, potassium, calcium and vitamin K. These nutrients assist in the proper functioning of the heart and circulatory system.
Vegetables contain appreciable amounts of soluble fiber, which bind cholesterol in the intestine and remove it from the body. Additionally, some of them may contain substances called phytosterols, which compete with cholesterol for absorption in the body.
No discussion of heart health would be complete without touching upon the topic of dietary fat. In the past decade, fats have received a bad reputation in the nutrition community. However, it is being increasingly realized that fat is not as bad as some once thought and that the type of fat could be more important than the amount of fat you eat.
Saturated fats (e.g., fat from animal products like meat, eggs, dairy) should be consumed in limited quantities since they have been shown to increase cholesterol in the blood. Furthermore, they can clog arterial walls and impair cellular function. Similarly, you might want to be conscious of the amount of trans fat you are eating. Trans fat, which is created in the process of making liquid oils more solid and stable, is found in varying amounts in margarines (there are, however, some margarines which are free of trans fat), baked goods, fast foods and some prepared foods. It is widely believed that trans fat is a greater risk for chronic disease than saturated fats since it decreases the good cholesterol (HDL) in the body while increasing the bad cholesterol (LDL). The Food and Drug Administration may eventually require that trans fat levels be listed on all food labels.
Editor’s Note: Since this article was first published, the FDA now requires trans fat amounts to be listed on the nutritional label, however, regulations allow zero trans fats to be listed on the label if there are 0.5 grams per serving. This means that, if you see “Zero” trans fats on the nutritional label, you might still find another term for it listed in the ingredients such as “partially hydrogenated.” So read labels.
Unsaturated fats from the omega-3 family are some of the healthiest oils to use for the heart. Leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, flaxseed and hempseed oils and fish contain various amounts of these fats. These good fats help to regulate inflammation in the body. They can also reduce blood thickness and stickiness, to help keep it moving, and lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. One point of caution is that oils high in omega-3 fats should not be used for frying, as they are highly prone to breaking down to produce toxic substances. Olive oil, and other highly monounsaturated oils, are more stable under cooking conditions than omega-3 fats.
Two tasty ways to get good fats into your diet is almond milk and flaxseeds. One method of making almond milk is to soak ½ cup of almonds in a pint of water overnight and then blend the mixture in a blender with ½ teaspoon vanilla for two minutes. The resulting almond milk can be stored in the refrigerator for two to three days maximum. Flaxseeds can be ground before you’re ready to eat them. You can add them to salads, vegetables, or cereal. Flaxseed oil can be used to make dressings.
There are some basic principles to keep in mind when preparing a meal and when eating for yourself and your heart:
Be sure that all food is prepared with gratitude and love. Doing so will enhance the power and sacredness of the eating process and your connection with all of life.
Chewing your food at least 25 times is essential for assisting in the digestion and absorption of nutrients. It also helps to ‘be’ in the experience of eating by savoring juices, textures and tastes.
Avoid eating when you are under stress and relax before and during eating. Stress constricts blood vessels and prevents the blood from reaching the digestive organs.
Avoid consuming excess quantities of food as this can overload the digestive process and lead to symptoms like “heart” burn. Also, it is best to avoid eating too many different foods in one meal.
Try not to eat before bedtime as to allow time for the digestive system to rest.
Deanna Minich, Ph.D., is an Holistic Nutrition Scientist who can be reached at http://www.foodandspirit.com
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