Nutrition and heart health update

treat your heart to a healthy diet...and chocolate

Along with all the red dresses and heart icons of February, American Heart Month, is some interesting news about heart health and diet.

  1. The single-minded obsession with cholesterol is turning out to be short-sighted.A new study from Denmark looked at the relationship between blood triglyceride levels and ischemic stroke, which occurs when blood flow in the brain is blocked, such as by plaque build up.  Triglycerides (TG) are fats floating around in blood, and until recently they were not considered a disease risk unless the level was astronomical.  Recent studies suggest a link between moderately elevated TGs and increasing ischemic stroke risk.  The Danish study followed 14,000 people for 33 years and found that stroke risk rose along with TG levels.  What makes TG levels go up?  High carb diets, particularly high sugar intake. It’s interesting to note that omega-3 fats are known to lower TGs.  One prescription drug used for elevated TGs – Lovaza – is actually a form of omega-3 fat.
  2. Vitamin K is known to be important for blood clotting, but research hints that one form of vitamin K – menaquinone, or K 2 – might actually help reduce calcification in arteries.  A study from the Netherlands compared dietary intake of the two forms of vitamin K (1 and 2) with arterial calcification.  Only menaquinone was associated with less calcification.  Interestingly, vitamin K is also linked to bone health, another example of the vitamin’s role in calcium utilization.  Where do we get vitamin K?  Dark green leafy vegetables.
  3. High blood pressure is a known risk factor for heart disease, and certain small protein fragments (called peptides) derived from milk have shown promise lowering blood pressure.  Some companies are developing these peptides for commercial use in food products.  But you could just consume dairy foods.
  4. Consumer Reports has a review article on heart supplements, noting that, despite years of trying, researchers have yet to offer convincing evidence that vitamin or mineral pills help prevent heart disease.  And as I mentioned previously, high vitamin E intake is linked to increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke.

Your first line defense against heart disease is a high fiber, low added sugar Mediterranean-type diet, with plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, smaller portions of meat or fish, and use of vegetable oils for cooking and salad dressing.  And chocolate.  Yes something delicious can be healthy.  While dark chocolate is getting a lot of attention, the actual benefits may come more from cocoa.  Some of the flavanols in cocoa beans can improve blood pressure as much as a prescription drug.  Chocolate does contain flavanols, and the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa and flavanol content.  A cheap candy bar with chocolate coating just doesn’t compare to the flavanol content of 70%+ dark chocolate.

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