Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death for both men and women, and sadly being a runner doesn't automatically make you immune. 25 percent of heart attacks happen in people who don't smoke and have healthy cholesterol levels.
The good news is exercise decreases your risk, as does eating a diet rich in heart-healthy foods. Specific foods can supply nutrients and antioxidants that work together, creating a synergy that protects your heart. The key is to incorporate them into your diet to get the most benefit. As a bonus, you'll also get plenty of quality carbs, protein, and nutrients for top running performance.
Berries, mango and citrus
Research shows fruit-eaters have a lower risk of heart disease. Load up on a variety of anthocyanins (berries), carotenes (mango), and vitamin C (citrus) for heart-protecting nutrients.
Heart smart: Aim for three different types of fruit per day.
If you're overweight, exercise can dangerously raise blood pressure, but cocoa flavanols may help. In one study, overweight subjects drank a high or low flavanol cocoa drink, then cycled. The high flavanol group had improved bloodflow and lower blood pressure mid and post exercise compared to the other group.
Heart smart: An ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day may provide heart benefits.
Extra virgin olive oil
Potent antioxidants found in extra virgin olive oil combat inflammation and prevent LDL (the 'bad' cholesterol) from damaging arteries.
Heart smart: Use olive oil to sauté vegetables but avoid frying; high temperatures can damage its health-boosting compounds.
Greens, onions and beetroot
Green vegetables contain folate and onions supply quercetin which both protect blood vessels. Beetroot are also rich in nitrates, which can help control blood pressure.
Heart smart: Eat at least three servings per day from a variety of colourful vegetables.
Whole grains are rich in heart-protecting antioxidants. In one study, eating whole-grain kamut for eight weeks led to a drop in subjects' total and LDL cholesterol, compared with a semi-whole-grain diet.
Heart smart: Select whole grains as often as possible.
Fatty fish like salmon and other seafood (such as tuna and clams) supply omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fats help lower circulating levels of dangerous fats called triglycerides. They also fight inflammation, which damages blood vessels and sets the stage for heart disease.
Heart smart: Try to eat two four-ounce servings of salmon or other fatty fish a week.
New research shows that walnuts contain protective antioxidant phenols that can markedly improve blood-vessel function just hours after eating a few ounces. Other nuts, such as almonds are also heart-healthy.
Heart smart: Snack on one ounce of walnuts (14 walnut halves) or a selection of other nuts every day.
Studies show drinking alcohol (wine, beer, or spirits) boosts HDL, or "good" cholesterol levels. Red wine contains resveratrol, which may keep platelets from clumping, reducing heart-disease risk.
Heart smart: Stick to one drink a day for women and two a day for men. More than that increases the risk of heart disease.
Yoghurt and Cheese
A recent Australian study found that eating full-fat cultured yoghurt and cheese for three weeks can lower inflammatory markers linked to heart disease, compared with eating low-fat, non-cultured dairy. The combination of calcium and probiotics in cultured dairy may help regulate blood pressure and mitigate other heart-disease risk factors.
Heart smart: Eat a serving or two of yoghurt or cheese daily.