by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
As I’m sure you’re aware by now, February is Heart Health Month and today I’m going to talk about 5 heart-healthy foods. But if you’re expecting yet another recitation of the usual suspects (almonds, salmon, dark chocolate, red wine, and so on), then you’ve underestimated the Nutrition Diva! This year, I’m going rogue with a list of 5 foods you probably won’t see on anyone else’s heart-healthy list—and the reasons they deserve a place in your cardio-conscious diet.
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5 Most Surprising Heart-Healthy Foods
1. Steak. Red meat tends to get a bad rap but the truth is that lean cuts of red meat like filet mignon (or the more budget-friendly flank steak) are both nutritious and heart-healthy. Red meat is a good source of protein, of course, as well as iron, B12, zinc, and other nutrients.
And although some of the fat is saturated, beef is also a good source of monounsaturated fat—which is the same heart-healthy kind of fat that you get from olive oil. In fact, beef tenderloin contains more monounsaturated fat than saturated fat. If you’re going to be grilling that steak, please be sure to check out my episode on grilled meats, in which I explain how to prevent the formation of carcinogenic compounds when cooking meat over open flames or coals.
2. Coffee. Contrary to popular lore, coffee is not bad for your heart! Coffee drinkers have no higher risk of heart disease than non-coffee drinkers—and actually have a reduced risk of heart failure.
Regular coffee consumption has been shown to reduce inflammation and increase HDL (or “good”) cholesterol. And although caffeinated coffee can temporarily increase your heart rate a bit, it does not cause irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. Coffee is rich in antioxidants that may actually protect your heart (along with the rest of your cells). As a matter of fact, coffee is the #1 source of antioxidants in the typical American diet. For more on the benefits of coffee and caffeine, see my episode: Is Caffeine Bad For You? Of course, it’s always possible to overdo a good thing. I suggest keeping your coffee consumption to no more than 4 cups a day.
3. Lard. Yes, you read correctly: lard. The idea that a nutritionist might OK the occasional use of butter doesn’t raise any eyebrows but somehow, the suggestion of lard stops people in their tracks! I’m not sure how lard got its artery-clogging reputation, but it is entirely undeserved. Lard has 33% less saturated fat than butter, twice as much heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and three times as much omega-3. And, as you bakers know, lard is the secret to tender, flaky pie crust without harmful trans fats. Although I suggest using olive oil is as your primary oil, lard (and butter) are both perfectly acceptable secondary sources of fat.
4. Beer. When it comes to heart health, red wine hogs all the credit. But the truth is that a daily pint of beer is just as effective as a glass of merlot in reducing your risk of heart disease. Despite all the hoopla about the polyphenols (such as resveratrol) in wine, scientists believe that it’s actually the alcohol in wine that’s primarily responsible for the heart-protective benefits. Besides, beer has polyphenols, too! And although the amount of polyphenols in wine is quite a bit higher, studies have found that you absorb about the same amount from wine or beer. Of course, moderation is the key here. The health benefits of alcohol consumption disappear as soon as you exceed one or two drinks a day.
5. Potatoes. Tired of being nagged about reducing your sodium? Here’s good news: Studies show that (as long as you are otherwise healthy), increasing your potassium intake can completely offset the negative effects of dietary sodium. Although you can get potassium from a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products and other whole foods, potatoes are among the best sources. In fact, one small study suggests that a daily serving of potatoes might reduce your blood pressure! I suggest you skip the fries and loaded skins: go for baked, roasted, or microwaved instead.
Heart Healthy Foods in Perspective
Although I had some fun putting together this subversive list of foods for Heart Health Month, I want to be sure I’m not leaving you with a false impression. I am not suggesting that a heart-healthy diet consists only of steak, potatoes, beer, and pie (although I think I just decided what I want for my birthday dinner next year!). What I am suggesting is that there’s room for all kinds of food in a healthy, balanced diet. And when I say “balanced,” I’m talking as much about our relationship to food and eating as I am about the balance of micro and macro-nutrients.
My point is that we often arbitrarily designate certain foods as “healthy” and others as “unhealthy.” The truth is that most foods offer a combination of nutritional positives and negatives. Remember that a healthy diet isn’t about which foods you eat and which you exclude, but about how you put them all together. Also, that a healthy approach to food includes appreciation for its sensual and social aspects as well as an awareness of its nutritional benefits.
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Steak, Coffee, Lard, Beer, and Potatoes images from Shutterstock