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Food fixes for the heart

Dr Mehmet Oz explains how to keep your arteries clear and your heart strong – the natural way

Whether you’re at risk of heart disease (the country’s number one killer) because of genetics or lifestyle, or you just want to make sure your heart keeps on working long and strong, you should take a keen interest in how food can help. The science is clear that a plant-based diet has an incredibly positive effect on the health of the heart. Fortify your plate with nature’s best medicine, and you’ll fortify your heart to carry you through life.

We each have more influence than we think over what happens within our heart and circulatory system.

Your heart works by pushing blood to and from it through your blood vessels. Blood is a vital nutrient shuttle, moving everything you absorb through food to all your organs. The heart really works like the central hub. Every route, in some form or another, must come and go from there. Trouble mostly happens in the arterial highways throughout the body rather than the heart itself.

Here’s how it happens. The heart pulses out blood through the aortic valve into the aorta (that’s the body’s largest artery), and that’s what sends blood out to all the rest of the organs. Tellingly, the first place the blood goes is to the surrounding coronary arteries, so the heart actually feeds itself before taking care of the rest of the body.

With all that blood shuttling through the body, you can either have smooth travelling or 12-vehicle pileups. Accidents come as a result of things that chip away at the arterial wall – high blood pressure, loads of excess sugar circulating in the bloodstream – both of which are linked to poor diet. Cracks are repaired with cholesterol, which is like the body’s plaster. When the repair is done with lousy LDL cholesterol, it acts like cheap putty and easily cracks with inflammation. This reveals underlying damage that can lead to sudden blood clots and closure of the artery.

A clog means that oxygen-and-nutrient-rich blood can’t be delivered to your brain and other organs. It means that your heart has to work harder to push blood out and can’t receive blood efficiently to do its job well. More clogs in more arteries equals more chances that you’re going to have problems like high blood pressure, heart attack and heart failure.

We can fix some of those issues with medication and surgery to clear clogs, no doubt. (That’s what bypass surgery is. We’re bypassing the damaged area and taking blood on a different route around the accident.) However, if you’re looking to strengthen your heart and even reverse damage before surgery or a life-threatening incident happens, you can use food to improve blood flow, quiet inflammation and restore order on your arterial highways.

How? You eat foods that will minimise the chance that plaque will build up along the arterial walls and rupture. Remember, much of that damage is done by high blood pressure and excess sugar floating around in the blood – both usually caused by overeating in general, and piling on sugar and refined carbs in particular.

We know that HDL cholesterol (the good kind) helps keep arteries clear, and that a variety of foods, such as fatty fish, foods rich in vitamin B, and foods with fibre, are good at raising your HDL stores. A diet rich in plants will cover many of these bases. Also, you want to eat healthy fats – or my “F” foods, Fats with benefits – because of their artery-clearing functions. These, remember, are found in olive oil, nuts, and fish.

Fats to watch out for in large amounts are the saturated kind (like those found in red meat and dairy products). Those are the ones that jack up cholesterol, which can wind up as dangerous plaque on artery walls and trigger panicked 9-9-9 calls. While you don’t have to eliminate red meat, I would recommend you severely restrict it if you have a significant risk of heart disease.

I want your plate to resemble a micro garden, with most foods reminding you of what they looked like when they were harvested (that doesn’t mean you need to eat everything raw, just that the form of the food keeps its shape – hence, apples are better than apple juice and grilled aubergine is just fine, but when it’s gooped up in batter and cheese, not so much). You’ll be treated to lots of vegetables, as well as lean protein (like chicken, turkey and fish). Some rice and grains are fine, too. Your goal is to avoid foods with lots of saturated fat and/or sugar, and anything processed. Eat this way and you prevent plaque from building up in the first place, keep the arteries clear, and minimise the risk of ruptures.

Not so excited by the idea of ramped-up veggie servings? Be brave with herbs and spices. You can season your vegetables with all kinds of combinations that keep things interesting. Slice cauliflower into “steaks” and roast them with Middle Eastern spices; add pow to a classic gazpacho recipe with minced jalapeños; sweeten carrots with cinnamon; charge up broccoli with turmeric. It’s such a mistake to think that eating healthy must be boring, bland, and blah. Use your kitchen as a little lab to elevate everything you eat. Go there with flavour, knowing you’re pleasing your tongue and your ticker, too.

Heart helpers

These seven ingredients are full of healthy fats. Here’s how to add them to your plate:

Extracted from Food Can Fix It: The superfood switch to fight fat, defy ageing and eat your way to vibrant health by Dr Mehmet Oz (£22.99, Hay House)

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