February is a good time to think about your athlete’s heart health – Valentine’s Day is approaching, it’s American Heart Month, and the first Friday of the month is recognized as Wear Red Day by the American Heart Association, encouraging Americans to wear red to raise awareness about heart disease and stroke.
This month, treat your athlete to some tasty, heart-healthy foods. The heart may be the most important muscle for young athletes, pumping oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the rest of the working muscles. Below are some power-packed foods to keep your athlete’s heart pumping strong, and the nutrient superstars that make those foods so great.
1. Omega-3 Fats: Omega-3 fats are a type of unsaturated fat that promotes healthy cholesterol levels and reduces inflammation in the body. Because inflammation and high cholesterol levels have both been tied to heart disease, eating more of these foods can help lower the risk of heart disease and keep your athlete’s heart healthy. Due to their anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3s may also improve recovery from exercise or injury. As an added bonus, they are great for boosting brain health, too. A heart-healthy diet should include two 3 oz. servings of fatty fish per week.
Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, halibut, cod, mackerel and sardines
Ground flax seeds and flax seed oil
Hemp seeds/hemp hearts
2. Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs): These are another type of healthful fat found in nuts, seeds and oils that also help support healthy cholesterol levels.
Nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, peanuts)
Peanut butter and other nut butters
3. Soluble Fiber: Noteworthy benefits include its ability to decrease cholesterol absorption from the digestive tract, promote stable blood sugar levels, and improve feelings of fullness and appetite control. Additionally, soluble fiber binds to certain vitamins and minerals in the gut, carrying these nutrients to other locations in the intestines, where the fiber is fermented by healthful bacteria and the nutrients are released for better absorption.
Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
Oats and oat bran
4. Resveratrol: Resveratrol is a polyphenolic compound with potent antioxidant properties and has been found to increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol, reduce oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, promote relaxation of the blood vessels and reduce blood pressure, inhibit the formation of blood clots, and reduce free radicals (highly reactive molecules that can damage cell membranes). It is found in the skin of red grapes, as well as several other berries and plants:
100% grape juice
5. Folic Acid: Folic acid is one of the B vitamins and plays many important roles in heart health. One of those is to aid in the conversion of homocysteine to methionine, thus reducing levels of homocysteine in the body. It has been shown that elevated homocysteine levels can increase cellular stress and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Some excellent sources of folic acid include:
Dark leafy green vegetables
Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
Oranges and 100% orange juice
Try this easy, heart-smart breakfast:
½ cup old fashioned, rolled or steel-cut oats
1 cup low-fat milk
½ tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp 100% maple syrup
½ cup fresh blueberries
1 Tbsp chopped walnuts or chia seeds
Combine oats and milk and cook according to the package directions. Mix in cinnamon and maple syrup, top with blueberries and walnuts and enjoy!
1. Moens, A. L., Vrints, C. J., Claeys, M. J., Timmermans, J., Champion, H. C., and Kass, D. A. (2008). Mechanisms and potential therapeutic targets for folic acid in cardiovascular disease. J Appl Physiol, 294(5), 1971-77. Doi: 10.1152/ajpheart.91503.2007.
2. Petrovski, G., Gurusamy, N., Das, D. K. (2011). Resveratrol in cardiovascular health and disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1215, 22-33. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05843.
Noel Williams, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a Performance Dietitian at Children’s HealthSM Andrews Institute Sports Performance Powered By EXOS. She earned both her BS in Nutrition and Dietetics and her MS in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition from Montana State University. She conducted her Master’s research on cardiovascular and metabolic demands of Rocky Mountain Elk Hunting. Noel is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and has taught workshops on developing positive eating behaviors in children in partnership with Montana Team Nutrition. She is also a part of the following professional organizations:
•Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
•Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
•Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (SCAN)
•American College of Sports Medicine