Although deaths from heart disease have dropped in recent years, it’s still the leading cause of death of Americans, for both men and woman. The good news is that we now know more than ever about how to prevent cardiovascular disease, which includes both strokes and heart attacks. One thing that’s clear: your diet and lifestyle (such as exercising more) can make a huge difference in the quality of your ticker.
When it comes to diet, making heart-healthy snack choices is more important than ever. While the average American eats roughly the same amount of food during meals as they did in the 1970s, the number of calories from between-meal noshing has increased to 580 calories per day, or about one-quarter of our total calorie intake.
When you’re at work, be sure to have these heart-healthy foods on hand to keep your ticker strong for decades to come.
As the age old adage goes: “An apple a day keeps the doctor way.” This may be true when it comes to your cardiologist. In the Iowa Women’s Health Study, which has been tracking more than 34,000 women for nearly 20 years, apples were associated with a lower risk of death from both coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease. There are several components of apples that may contribute to their heart-protective benefits.
Apples provide pectin, a soluble fiber that has been shown to help lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels. In addition, apples provide a number of strong antioxidant compounds (such as quercetin, epicatechin, and epigallocatechin) that have been shown to inhibit inflammation and reduce oxidative stress that can lead to atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular problems. Apples also provide a good amount of another antioxidant, vitamin C. While all apples have been shown to deliver heart-protective nutrients, red delicious provide the highest amount of antioxidants.
Not just for the movie theater, popcorn makes a smart office snack. This whole grain delivers polyphenols, an antioxidant linked to improving heart health. In fact, research at the University of Scranton shows that gram for gram, popcorn has three times more polyphenols than kidney beans, which is the highest vegetable polyphenol choice.
To make this snack truly heart healthy, hold the added butter and salt and avoid certain microwavable popcorn bags. According to the FDA, many popcorn bags contain especially high levels of PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acid) – a chemical found in things like nonstick cookware and food wrappers, which has been linked to cardiovascular disease. To ensure you get the heart-healthy benefits you intend, pop your own popcorn or buy pre-popped bags free from PFOAs. Season yourself with olive oil and fresh herbs or spices, like rosemary or cayenne pepper.
You’ve probably heard that red wine is good for the heart, well, grapes offer a less intoxicating choice for the office. The heart-healthy polypehenol found in red wine, resveratrol, is also found in grapes of all colors. In addition, fresh grapes provide other heart-protective nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, and flavonoids.
Together these nutrients may promote healthy blood pressure, reduce LDL cholesterol, provide anti-inflammatory effects, and help your heart pump blood. In-season May through January, grapes are perfectly portable for the office. One serving of grapes (3/4 cup) contains just 90 calories, no fat, no cholesterol and virtually no sodium.
Chock-ful of protein, vitamins, minerals, and heart-healthy fats, nuts are a smart snacking choice for the office. Although some people think nuts should be avoided for their high fat content, studies suggest that people who eat nuts – walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios – two to four days or more per week are leaner and have a lower incidence of heart disease than people who eat them less often.
However, since they are calorie dense, keeping to a serving size is still important for waist management – a serving size is one ounce, or about a handful. If you’re likely to overdo the handful(s), go for in-shell pistachio. Known as the “Pistachio Principle,” in-shell pistachios may help you fool yourself full because the leftover shells may provide a visual cue for portions, potentially helping to curb intake. Plus, those greens and red-purples on pistachios are from antioxidants, which offer additional health promoting benefits.
In the interest of full disclosure, I work with Wonderful Pistachios to help people make healthy snacking choices.
Did you know that your gum health is directly linked to your heart health? Research shows that people with gum disease, which affects up to 50 percent of American adults, are twice as likely to suffer from heart problems. Due to its abilities to deliver probiotics, or “good bacteria,” studies show that yogurt may protect against gum disease.
Japanese researchers analyzed the diets from nearly 1,000 adults and found those who consumed the highest amounts of dairy (specifically yogurt and yogurt-type drinks) had the healthiest gums.
In addition, yogurt provides important nutrients like protein for staying power and calcium for bone health. Since yogurts are often filled with added sugars, ideally choose one that has more protein than sugar. To boost your heart-healthy snack benefits even more, top plain yogurt with fiber-rich berries, which are loaded with antioxidants for good health.
Patricia Bannan is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian specializing in nutrition and health communications. She is the author of "Eat Right When Time Is Tight: 150 Slim-Down Strategies and No-Cook Food Fixes." Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.