Key heart-healthy ingredients

Key heart-healthy ingredients

Dale Pinnock
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
978 184949 542 4

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but below are some of the everyday ingredients that I think are the real heroes when it comes to keeping our hearts healthy. The good news, too, is that there’s nothing obscure here: they are all regular and familiar ingredients that you can find at your local grocery shop.


This fruit is a very simple, easily accessible and versatile heart-healthy food. Why are they so good? Apples are very rich in a soluble fibre called pectin. Any of you that make jam will know that pectin is an effective gelling agent. This gel-like soluble fibre will bind to cholesterol in the digestive tract and carry it off before it gets the chance to be absorbed.


For years, people thought of avocado as a fattening food. This was back in the days when we were completely obsessed with fat and the merest mention of it would strike fear into the hearts of many. This is, of course, ridiculous. The fats in avocado are unique, amazing for our health and they should be seen as nothing other than a health food. The fruit is very high in a group of compounds called phytosterols. These are the same compounds that you find in those little cholesterol-lowering drinks. They have been shown clinically to reduce cholesterol, by blocking the absorption of cholesterol through the gut wall (similar to soluble fibre). Avocados are also very rich in vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant nutrient. Vitamin E can actually protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation. As we have explored earlier in the book, this can be one of the early factors that triggers endothelial damage, so any protection against this is a vital part of looking after your heart.


OK, so I admit that beetroot is definitely one of those love/hate foods. Personally I am a huge fan and can’t get enough of the stuff. Luckily, in recent years it has been found to have many health benefits. One of the areas that has attracted a lot of attention is the effect beetroot has on blood pressure. It is very high in natural nitrates, a type of mineral salt. This is then converted by the body into nitric oxide, which is naturally produced to regulate blood pressure. Nitric oxide causes the smooth muscles in the blood vessel walls to relax, which widens the vessels and in turn reduces blood pressure within them. Some small-scale studies have confirmed this effect. This doesn’t mean you can throw your medicine in the bin and eat beetroot all day, though, it just highlights a powerful ingredient that we can consume more of to benefit our heart health.


Blackberries are incredibly rich in the flavonoid compounds called anthocyanins. These potent compounds are responsible for their deep dark purple colour, and are one of the most bioactive flavonoids in terms of stimulating endothelial function. They are known to be taken up into the endothelium, where they can stimulate nitric oxide release.


Blueberries, like blackberries, are high in the antioxidant compounds anthocyanins. These are the compounds that give them their deep purple colour, and have been shown to cause relaxation of blood vessels, protect vessel walls against damage, even reduce cholesterol slightly. Many studies have shown significant benefits to patients with cardiovascular disease, even vascular dementia.

Brown rice

OK, it’s a health food staple and a lot of people still see it as a bit hippyish, but brown rice has benefits for heart health. It is mostly the high fibre content that makes brown rice useful. It helps move cholesterol out of the digestive tract, reducing the amount absorbed into the bloodstream. It also contains a compound known as gamma-oryzanol, that is linked with reducing levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol.

Bulgar wheat

The fibre content of bulgar wheat makes it an ideal ingredient for digestive and heart health, as high-fibre foods will help remove cholesterol from the digestive tract before it can be absorbed. There are also a lot of B vitamins and magnesium in bulgar wheat, which have a soothing and relaxing effect. This may have knock-on effects for stress-induced high blood pressure, for example. Magnesium also works against calcium in smooth muscle, aiding relaxation and therefore vasodilation.


Cacao is packed to the hilt with flavonoids. As we have seen, these compounds have been very widely researched and are known to cause the cells that line our blood vessels to release high levels of a compound called nitric oxide, which in turn causes the muscles in the blood vessel walls to relax. When they relax, the blood vessel widens, which reduces the pressure within it. Cacao has been the focus of a great deal of research here in the UK, with many studies confirming its benefits – albeit transient – for elevated blood pressure and enhanced peripheral circulation (a marker of increased vasodilation). Cacao is also very high in magnesium, which also encourages relaxation of the smooth muscle in vessel walls.


Chillies contain a phytochemical called capsaicin, which gives them their intense heat. Capsaicin causes the cells that line the inside of our blood vessels to secrete a chemical called nitric oxide, which as we have seen is naturally produced by these cells (chilli just gives them a kick in the right direction). Nitric oxide tells the muscles in the blood vessel walls to relax, so the vessel widens. This has two benefits: firstly, the wider the blood vessel, the lower the pressure within it; secondly, circulation to the extremities is improved. Have you (or anyone you know) turned red-faced after eating something particularly hot and spicy? Well, this is that very vasodilatory response in action!


Garlic has long been championed for keeping the heart healthy. It contains a potent compound – ajoene – which interacts with a compound in the body that regulates the rate and extent to which blood clots. As we have seen, excessive clotting can be a very high risk for cardiovascular incidents, while keeping clotting at a reasonable level may deliver several benefits. Some surgeons even advise their patients against eating garlic before surgery, just in case it increases their bleeding. On a day-to-day basis, it can protect from clotting, so is a weapon against strokes and heart attacks.

Green tea

Another of those healthy staples. I remember 10–15 years ago, when I would drink green tea, that friends, family, all and sundry looked at me like I’d just stepped out of a spaceship. Well, how times have changed. Green tea has quite the reputation these days as a healthy ingredient, and justifiably so in my view. Green tea has some potentially powerful benefits for the heart. This is thanks to the presence of a group of compounds called catechins. These have been shown to reduce platelet (thrombocyte) adhesion, so may offer protection against clots. There are also other flavonoids present in green tea that can stimulate nitric oxide release and therefore increase vasodilation.


The omega 3 fatty acids in mackerel have a very favourable effect upon cholesterol levels, and can also protect blood vessel walls from inflammatory damage. Omega 3 also delivers antithrombotic activity and can help to reduce blood pressure. What’s not to like? Prolonged regular intake of oily fish, as well as fish oil supplements, has been shown in numerous studies to be associated with a decreased incidence of heart disease and has also been shown clinically to improve several of the clinical markers for cardiovascular disease.


Oats have become one of the most famous of all ‘heart healthy’ foods today. They contain a soluble fibre called beta glucan. This has been clinically proven to reduce cholesterol in the digestive tract. It does this by forming a gel-like substance, which then binds to cholesterol that has been released from the liver. Once bound to it, it carries the cholesterol out the body through the bowel before it has had a chance to be absorbed back into the bloodstream.

Olive oil

Olive oil has long been known to be beneficial to heart health. The Mediterranean diet is believed to be one of the healthiest ways to eat in the world, and has an exceptional track record for protecting the heart and circulatory system. One of the main protective elements within that diet is, of course, olive oil. The fatty acids in olive oil have been shown on many occasions to increase the levels of HDL cholesterol, and decrease LDL. Oleic acid, the most abundant fatty acid in olive oil, seems to have a beneficial effect upon blood pressure, with some subtle vasodilatory function.


As I have explained earlier in the book, a high-GI diet is a fast track towards cardiovascular problems. Unlike many grains (which tend to be total starch bombs) quinoa is very, very low in carbohydrates and is very low GI. This means it will release its energy slowly and won’t cause blood sugar spikes, making it a perfect alternative to rice for anyone wishing to stabilise their blood sugar more effectively. It also naturally has a high protein content which will aid satiety and slow down digestion of a meal, giving that all-important drip-feeding of blood sugar.

Red lentils

Red lentils are another ingredient with a high percentage of soluble fibre. I know I may sound like I am repeating myself a little bit, but I really want to drive the point home. This soluble fibre helps remove cholesterol from the gut, reducing the amount that gets absorbed into the bloodstream through the digestive tract.

Red onions

All onions are amazing for you, but red onions in particular are extra-special for the health of the heart. This is because they are particularly high in flavonoids, part of the cocktail of chemistry that gives them their deep purple colour. So, again, these will enter the endothelial cells in our vessels and increase their expression of nitric oxide, aiding vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels) and helping to protect the endothelium from damage.

Red peppers

Red peppers are definitely up there with my favourite hearthealthy ingredients. Their deep red colour is given by a reasonably high concentration of flavonoids, offering protection to the endothelium and enhancing vasodilation again by – you guessed it – increasing nitric oxide expression by the endothelium.

Red wine

And you thought it was all bad news, didn’t you! Red wine consumption has been shown, in dozens of population studies, to be associated with reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease and many of the clinical markers associated with cardiovascular disease risk. It is believed that this is again due to the flavonoid content and also a compound called resveratrol. Both of these compounds are known to induce vasodilation, have anticoagulant properties, reduce inflammation and have positive effects upon cholesterol levels. The bad news is… only two glasses a day.


Oily fish are definitely at the top of the healthy heart food chain and are big players in my recipes, as you will see in the next section. Salmon is packed with omega 3 fatty acids, all-important good fats. These help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and protect blood vessels from long-term, persistent inflammatory damage, which can be the first step in the process that leads to heart attacks. Omega 3 is also beneficial for the rate and extent to which blood clots, offering a reduction in clotting.

Sweet potatoes

Another of my staple ingredients and rightly so, I think. These are packed with anti-inflammatory beta carotene. This is the thing that makes the flesh orange and which may offer some anti-inflammatory protection when consumed regularly. Sweet potatoes also give a much lower glycaemic response than the regular spud, so they are a perfect alternative to chips, mash, shepherd’s pie, the lot!


Trout is a fish that has very good levels of the anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids.

Tuna steak

Several studies have found that tuna positively affects cholesterol levels. This is most likely due to the high omega 3 levels in fresh tuna. Canned tuna, although it’s a great lean protein, is not a good source of omega 3, as all of the oils have already been pressed out and sold (ironically) to the nutritional supplements industry.

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