Heart disease is the leading killer of all Americans, but African Americans are hit hardest. Heart disease develops earlier in African Americans than in white Americans and deaths from heart disease are higher. Moreover, the life expectancy of African Americans is 3.4 years shorter than that of whites, because of a higher rate of heart attacks, sudden cardiac arrest, heart failure and strokes than white Americans.
High cholesterol is one of the major risks for heart disease and stroke. Nearly 1 in 3 American adults have high cholesterol. The good news is, you can improve your odds of preventing heart disease by managing your cholesterol levels. And one of the best ways to manage cholesterol levels is by following a heart-healthy diet. Fiber, unsaturated fat, and plant sterols and stanols are the main components of a heart-healthy diet that have been shown to decrease cholesterol.
Dietary fiber is the indigestible part of any plant food, including the leaves of vegetables, fruit skins, and seeds. There are two types of dietary fiber, soluble and insoluble, and most plant foods contain some of each kind. All fiber has heart-health benefits, but soluble fiber also helps lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol.
Soluble fiber is also beneficial if you have diabetes. Fiber slows digestion and the rate at which carbohydrates and other nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.
This action can help control the level of blood glucose—also called blood sugar, by preventing rapid rises in blood glucose following a meal. Oats have more soluble fiber than any other grain.
Foods rich in soluble fiber include oat bran, oatmeal, amaranth, barley, beans, lentils, peas, rice bran, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits, strawberries and apple pulp and flax seeds.
Unsaturated fats. Eating unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats can help lower your LDL cholesterol. Most vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature have unsaturated fats. There are two kinds of unsaturated fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated fats are found mostly in vegetable oils such as canola, olive, and peanut oils, and in whole olives, avocados and peanuts. Monounsaturated fats are often called heart-healthy fats because they don’t cause increased cholesterol levels.
Polyunsaturated fats are found mostly in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, and flaxseed. It’s important to remember that when it comes to calories, “fat is fat,” and all types—including heart-healthy fat, provide nine calories per gram.
Plant sterols and stanols. Naturally occurring sterols and stanols are heart-healthy compounds found in many fruits, vegetables, and grains. These compounds lower total and LDL cholesterol levels by reducing the absorption of cholesterol from the digestive tract. There is evidence that eating or drinking 2g of sterols or stanols per day may reduce your risk of heart disease. However, most natural sources of these compounds contain only trace amounts, which means you would have to consume massive amounts to have any effect on your cholesterol. For that reason, food companies add these compounds to foods like margarine and orange juice. One tablespoon of Benecol® margarine has 1 gram of plant stanols and 8 ounces of Minute Maid Heartwise® orange juice contains 1 gram of plant sterols.
While decreasing overall cholesterol is important, research has found a strong link between a healthy heart and an increase in high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “Good”) cholesterol. HDL cholesterol helps protect against heart disease, by removing excess cholesterol from the blood and carrying it to the liver, where it can be excreted. Your HDL concentration can be improved through exercise, acquiring and maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, niacin supplementation, and an increase in omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon, albacore tuna, herring, and mackerel are rich in omega-3s. Walnuts, almonds and ground flax seeds are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.