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"Go Green" for Your Heart Health

by Lisa Brousseau, staff writer

Everyone wants to "go green" for the environment and protect against furthering global warming, but did you know that you can also "go green" for your heart health? Simply add more fruits and vegetables to your daily diet. This action alone will benefit yourself, your family and the environment. By eating healthy, you will increase your energy level, boost your immune system, and reduce your risk of certain diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Eating healthy can be simple if you follow some suggested guidelines.

Eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day is the recommended guideline from the American Dietetic Association. Sadly, only 23 - 32% of Americans are meeting these guidelines. Here are some helpful ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet:

  • For breakfast, add fruit to your cereal. Use frozen fruit for smoothies

  • Have a side-salad with your lunch or dinner meal every day and keep cut-up vegetables in easy-to-grab snack bags and on the top shelf of your refrigerator

  • Make fruit your desert selection. Keep a bowl-full of fresh fruit in plain sight at home and at the office.

For more helpful pointers on how to add fruits and vegetables to your diet, including tasty recipes, click here. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables so that you benefit fully from all the different fiber, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that each offer and make sure that at least one of your daily vegetable choices is of a dark green leafy variety (i.e. romaine lettuce, collards, kale).

Fresh - Many today seek organic produce because it is not grown with conventional pesticides or artificial fertilizers; unfortunately, it is also expensive. To avoid this expense, many are only choosing to buy organic for those fruits and vegetables known to have the most pesticide residues. According to research conducted by the USDA and USFDA on US-grown fruits and vegetables, those most contaminated by pesticides are peaches, strawberries, apples, and spinach; whereas, the least contaminated are sweet corn, avocado, pineapples, and cauliflower. For a complete list, click here.

If organic is not in your budget, you can still make healthy fresh-fruit choices. The most accurate meaning of the word "fresh" is in-season and locally grown (no more than 250 miles from purchase location). Imported fruits and vegetables (particularly spinach, grapes, and carrots) degrade in nutritional value during their weeks of storage and transport. It is also important to note that imported produce has the most pesticides. So, it is wise to bypass the imported offerings and choose only what is in-season and locally-grown. Ideally, if you have a farm near your home, buy directly from them and you will have a nutritional advantage. A healthy, cost-effective alternative is to shop at your local farmers' market. To alleviate some of your pesticide fears, take advantage of the many produce-cleaning products on the market (e.g., Veggie Wash), which use natural substances called surfactants to remove pesticide residues.

Frozen - Frozen produce is typically cheaper than fresh; and in some cases, can be more nutritionally beneficial. While fresh imported produce depletes in nutritional value due to a lag time between its harvest and its arrival in supermarkets, frozen produce is typically flash frozen within hours of harvest, which is at its nutritional peak. It should be noted that freezing can deplete certain vitamins, such as Vitamin E and B6; however, Vitamin C content is not depleted at all. Avoid frost-laden bags because this indicates that they may have thawed and lost some of their nutritional value. Also, if you are concerned about pesticide residue, choose frozen vegetables that have very low residues, such as sweet corn, cauliflower, and peas.

Canned - Canned items are another viable alternative when produce is out of season or too expensive. According to a University of Illinois study, canned vegetables retained their fiber and vitamins A, C, B1, and B6. Interestingly, canned pumpkin and tomato are preferable to fresh. Canned pumpkin has more vitamin A and canned tomato can be better absorbed by the body, improving its antioxidant benefits. Also, according to the ADA, canned corn and carrots provide higher amounts of phytochemicals than their fresh counterparts. To improve your hearth-health, choose canned vegetables that are low in salt and canned fruits that are canned in their own juice, which is lower in sugar. Avoid items with high fructose corn syrup as this is a man-made chemical additive.

Heart-Healthy Fats - As we grow in our knowlege of food science, many nutrition experts are gaining more appreciation for the delicious Mediterranean diet as a better way to eat and live. The Mediterranean diet promotes even more servings of fresh vegetables each day and derives 40% of calories from fat, mostly olive oil - a monunsaturated fat often described as a "heart-healthy" fat because of its cardio-protective benefit. This type of fat helps protect HDL - the "Healthy" blood cholesterol levels. Learn more about the Mediterranean diet. Read about a study that suggests educating heart patients about the Mediterranean diet could offer a cost benefit in healthcare dollars well-spent. Monounsaturated fat is found in olive, canola and nut oils and in avocado. Another type of healthy fat to include in your diet each day is Omega-3 fatty acids - a type of polyunsaturated fat found in cold-water fish (i.e. wild salmon, mackeral, sardines and tuna). Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that the body can't make, so you must get it in your diet each day for a healthy immune system. Omega-3 protects against heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases. It has an anti-inflammatory effect and can even help reduce annoying palpitations that so many women expeience with fluctuations in estrogen. Eating three fish meals a week is recommended but if this is not possible, consider fish oil supplements that have been tested to be mercury-free . Pregant and nursing women and others concerned about the exposure to toxic methyl mercury can safely consume 1-2 tablespoons of flax seed oil a day as an alternative plant-based source of Omega-3 without the risk. Fat has a stabilizing effect on blood sugar levels, insulates nerve endings and is a necessary food for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

Meat - Reduce your consumption of meat and you can improve your health and the health of the planet. Use meat sparingly as a condiment to flavor foods. Meat factories consume huge amounts of energy and emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, which contributes to global warming. If you purchase meats that have no antibiotics or hormones added, and that are from a local purveyor, it is better for your health and better for the environment .. yet another way to "go green". Fill the rest of your protein requirements with healthy meat alternatives, including beans, peas, lentils, edemane, tofu, nuts, cheese, eggs, unprocessed whole grains, and fish.

For more helpful hints on how to eat healthy without spending a lot of money, read "Eating Healthy and Affordably" at http://www.eatright.org. I hope you enjoyed this update on health and nutrition. Take care of your heart.

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1999-2000; updates: 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007 Women's Heart Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited. The information contained in this Women's Heart Foundation (WHF) Web site is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment, and WHF recommends consultation with your doctor or health care professional.