February is Heart Health Month!

As an athlete you may think that you are immune to heart disease since you incorporate physical activity on a regular basis. However, do you really know what an optimal heart-healthy diet should include? There is so much misinformation available that I thought a review of some dietary habits and facts pertinent to heart health were in order.

Let’s start with a quiz!

1. Is it more important to reduce total dietary saturated fat or avoid trans fats?
2. The fiber is which of these foods will lead to a reduction in blood cholesterol – bran cereal or oats?
3. Which of these foods is not high in potassium – green seedless grapes, oranges, potatoes, tomatoes, or bananas?
4. What is considered normal blood pressure?
5. What are desirable levels for total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides?
6. Why would a high intake of refined carbohydrates and simple sugars increase your risk for heart disease?

Now that I have you thinking, let me fill you in on what you need to know to keep your heart healthy. While it is important to keep your saturated fat in check (full fat dairy, fatty cuts of meat, fast food, etc), trans fat is more harmful to the heart. Read the ingredient list of foods you purchase and avoid those containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

We need both insoluble and soluble fiber in our diets in order to remain healthy. The insoluble fiber that is found in foods like whole-grain bread, vegetables, and bran cereal contribute to colon health. The soluble fiber in foods like oats and beans can decrease cholesterol by binding with it so that it is excreted.

Potassium is a very important mineral for athletes since it is one of the main ones lost in sweat (in addition to sodium). But it is also extremely important in terms of blood pressure regulation and most Americans don’t get enough. The recommended intake is 4700 mg for adults, which is actually harder to get than you might think. One banana has around 400 mg. Wow – that’s a lot of bananas! Seedless grapes are low in potassium but the others in the question are good sources.

Normal blood pressure is <120/<80 mm HG. Do you know yours? Go to your local pharmacy and use the self-check blood pressure machine. What about cholesterol numbers? Total cholesterol should be <200 mg/dl, LDL (lousy or bad cholesterol) < 100 mg/dl, HDL (good cholesterol) >40 mg/dl (the higher the better : 60 is considered high), and triglycerides <150 mg/dl. The last question is a tricky one when it comes to athletes. Yes you should be fueling during exercise with those simple carbs like gels and gus and sports drinks, since they delay fatigue and provide a ready source of fuel. Simple sugars such as those found in low-fat chocolate milk are also ok for athletes when used as a recovery drink. However I think athletes sometimes overdo the gels, gus and other engineered foods and research has shown that a high intake of refined starches and sugars can depress HDL, raise triglycerides, and raise inflammatory factors. My suggestion is to go easy on these products when your training volume is lower and during the off season. Opt for “real foods” instead like an apple or banana since you will also get some fiber and complex carbohydrates with those foods. A few other ways to eat for heart health include eating 2 servings of fatty fish a week, or if you are a vegan or don’t like fish, including flax oil or hemp oil. Make sure to load up on lots of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables, use olive oil when you can, and snack on heart healthy nuts a few times a week. Finally, let’s not forget those phytochemicals and heart protective flavonoids such as the ones found in green tea and dark chocolate. Just watch the portions of the chocolate and aim for a one ounce portion per day and a brand that contains 200 mg of cocoa flavanols per serving. While not an exhaustive list, the suggestions here should put you in the right direction for heart health.