Each year in February we renew our commitment to heart disease awareness by showing our support and our fashion sense for the “Go Red” campaign by wearing our red clothing and accessories. And wearing red has become the universal mantra for promoting heart health. Now food scientists and dietitians are upping the ante by encouraging us not only to wear red but also to “eat red” to protect our hearts.
It’s true that red is the color of power, energy, passion, and love. It’s celebratory and some cultures associate the color red with life and with health. And of course, red is also the color of our blood (well, once it hits oxygen) and the color we associate with the heart. Red stands out.
“There’s something so incredibly powerful about the color red. It brings people to attention and women are drawn like magnets to it,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “since it represents strength and power and symbolizes the heart, and of course, love.” But you also want this color in your diet, she remarks. “You need to put different colors, [including]the bright eye-popping colors like red on your plate” to reap the nutritional benefits for the heart and the whole body.
Heart disease remains the number one killer in the U.S. and there is a large body of evidence that what and how we eat, along with a healthy lifestyle, play a critical role in promoting a healthy heart and reducing risk factors for heart disease, including high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, increased triglycerides, inflammation, and metabolic syndrome.
Heart Disease’s Red Flag
The American Heart Association estimates that 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. today have some form of heart disease. That’s over 80 million people living with the disease more than twice the entire population of California and heart disease claims the life of someone in America every 37 seconds. In fact, cardiovascular disease is responsible for nearly as many deaths each year as cancer, diabetes, respiratory disease, and accidents combined.
Cornell University Associate Professor Mary Tabacchi, PhD, RD, informs us that there are misperceptions about cardiovascular disease risk and women because it tends to show up about a decade later in life (in the mid-50s) and differently in women than in men. But when it does, it can be more dangerous. Tabacchi counsels us that “we need to remind women that when they get heart disease it can be much more serious even though it arrives later in life.” In fact, currently a reported 38 percent of women will die within a year of having a heart attack compared with 25 percent of men. That’s why active awareness and preventive measures are so important. We need to save our hearts and our lives.
Why ‘Eat Red’?
Women today are busier than ever running businesses, being mothers, and trying to maintain social lives so much so that they sometimes overlook warning signs and symptoms when they do occur. But if prevention actually holds the key to avoiding heart disease, health-promotion strategies have to be quick, relatable, and easy for us to stand a fighting chance. And looking directly at our fruits and vegetables in particular to cherries, tomatoes, red grapes, and others may provide an important part of the answer.
“We’ve always known fruits and vegetables were ‘healthy,’ but now we’re beginning to better understand precisely why,” said Steven F. Bolling, MD, a cardiac surgeon at the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center, and head of the UM Cardioprotection Research Laboratory. “Researchers are uncovering the unique potential for plant compounds, like those in cherries, to affect multiple heart health factors.”
These compounds, known as phytochemicals, are staring right back at you when you pick up a cherry, tomato, grape, or virtually any fruit or vegetable. The colorful pigments of the fruits and vegetables are the antioxidants and other plant nutrients that provide a preventive shield of defense to your body. “It’s almost like the antivirus and spyware software you run on your computer to keep your system free of viruses and running smoothly, but here you have to eat and update your (body) system on a daily basis with disease-fighting foods in your diet,” explains Tabacchi. The colors of the foods themselves open the door to a wide variety of nutrients that can protect your heart and your body, too.
Linda Illingworth, RD and the director of nutrition at Cal-a-Vie Spa finds that using colors is a very helpful way to connect diet with health. She adds, “We are a very visual society, and a visual stimulus such as ‘wearing red’ and combining it with a message to ‘eat red’ is a great way to propel our thinking toward nutrition and our action toward making small changes that can bring about great benefits.”
And it appears that we’re interested. In fact, a recent survey of over 1,500 individuals showed that aging boomers and seniors would prefer to eat certain foods that help promote health, in particular a healthy heart, if they knew they could potentially limit the amount of medication they might need to take. SuperFoods with health-promoting properties like antioxidants have already become a major nutrition trend today. If we’re shown what to look for in our diets that can actually promote a healthy heart, we’re likely to try and succeed.
The Time for Red
While cherries, tomatoes, and red grapes may not seem like the foods of winter in your neck of the woods, it is actually a unique time to get creative and look to other forms of these powerhouse foods to provide you a winter season of heart-healthy nutrition and lots of flavor. Bonci comments that red foods “transcend the seasons” because of the variety of forms available, and high quality red foods can be found in the freezer section, in jars and cans, and with the other dried fruits and trail mixes, and in the juice aisle. Plus they’re so versatile.
Cherries. It’s true that we find fresh sweet cherries in the summertime, but you can actually find cherries year-round. In fact, tart cherries are picked and then dried, frozen, or juiced making it easy to enjoy dried cherries in your oatmeal or muffins, frozen cherries in smoothies or crumbles, and cherry juice in sauces, salad dressings, or on it’s own as a beverage any time. This super fruit is a rich source of powerful disease-fighting antioxidants called anthocyanins also found in raspberries, blueberries, red cabbage, and beets that gives it the cherry-red color we see. Anthocyanins help scavenge nitric oxide and also decrease inflammation in the body, an important risk factor for heart disease, reports Tabacchi. And a recent University of Michigan study showed that a cherry-enriched diet in animals lowered total cholesterol and reduced triglycerides, important preliminary evidence of potential additional heart benefits.
Tomatoes. The red pigment in tomatoes is from a carotenoid called lycopene that has been linked to prostate health in men. But there’s also some evidence that lycopene and other carotenoids along with vitamins A, C, and E in tomatoes may help reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol oxidation, which plays a key role in building plaque in the blood vessels, which can lead to atherosclerosis. Research has shown that women who consume the highest amounts of tomato-based foods have greater protection against heart disease. And processed tomatoes actually enhance the body’s absorption of this nutrient.
In the winter when fresh tomatoes just don’t taste very good, it’s an especially good time to enjoy low-sodium pasta and pizza sauces, tomato juices and soups, and canned diced tomatoes. Kerry Neville, a Seattle-based Registered Dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association points out “if you add a little heart-healthy olive oil to your tomato sauce, you’ll increase [the amount of]lycopene your body absorbs even more.” That in essence is what in nutritional science is called food synergy. Ruby red grapefruit and watermelon are two other familiar red foods that also contain lycopene.
Red grapes. Anthocyanins as found in cherries, along with resveratrol, quercetin, and pterostilbene, give grapes their color and their antioxidant powers that can help decrease the risk of heart disease as well as certain cancers. Several studies have shown that the plant compounds in red grapes can reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing the risk of blood clots, protecting the elasticity and pressure within the blood vessels, and lowering LDL cholesterol while also potentially boosting the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. A win-win.
Grapes are one of the few fresh fruits that are available year-round and maintain their sweet, fresh flavor whether it’s January or June. And let’s not forget that red grapes in the form of red wine have received quite a bit of attention for their role in reducing heart disease risk, principally attributed to the antioxidant resveratrol. But Illingworth cautions that “for women at high risk for breast cancer, it may be best to forego the wine which can actually increase breast cancer risk and stick with the grapes or grape juice instead.”
Hippocrates said, “let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food” and we’re starting to really see what he meant. Let your eyes be your guide to a healthy heart and let your heart reflect the health of the rest of your body from head to toe. Eating a colorful diet abundant in antioxidant-rich foods is a great start, and eating specific colors in a variety of forms may really maximize the benefits. Wear red on the outside to grab the attention of your friends and loved ones to raise awareness about reducing heart disease. And eat red to grab the attention of those many cells on the inside that protect your healthy heart.
10 Steps to a Healthier Heart
1. Eat 5-9, 1/2-cup servings of multi-colored fruits and veggies daily in the form of fresh, frozen, dried, or juice. And make at least one of them red, including tomatoes, cherries, berries, red grapes, beets, or red cabbage.
2. Focus on whole grains and minimize processed, refined foods with added sugars.
4. Eat heart-healthy fats, including poly- and mono-unsaturated fats in olive oil, canola oil, avocadoes, and walnuts. And limit saturated fats from red meats and butter and avoid unnatural trans-fats (hydrogenated oils).
5. Eat 2 servings of fish weekly (approximately 12 ounces total).
6. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation (women should limit their consumption to 1 glass per day). And remember grape juice is heart healthy, too.
7. Be active with 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
9. Maintain a healthy weight.
10. Know your numbers (cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure) and monitor your health over time.
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