Women may be reaching for the right dietary heart helpers but unknowingly countering their benefits. The problem is what we're combining with those heart-healthy choices says Erin Palinski, a registered dietician from New Jersey who serves on the Nutrition Advisory Board for the College of Saint Elizabeth
Fish oil alone is not a cure all for heart disease
If you are taking fish oil supplements because of their heart-healthy omega-3s, make sure you're also watching your diet. "Fish oil supplements have been shown to help protect against heart disease when combined with a low fat diet," Palinksi says. "However, when combined with a diet high in saturated fat, this may cancel out the help benefits of this oil."
Have your tea but hold the milk
Following a heart-healthy recommendation isn't enough. Do your research to determine contraindicated combinations. For example, black tea has long been touted as good for your heart because it contains a category of flavonoids called catechins, which promote relaxation and expansion of the arteries to maintain healthy blood pressure. However, a study published in the European Heart Journal in January 2007 proves that adding milk to your black tea actually counteracts the tea's benefits on vascular function. The caseins in the milk, specifically, inhibit the ability of the flavonoids to do their job. Palinski recommends adding soy milk to your tea instead; it has a different molecular structure than regular milk and won't inhibit the tea's heart-healthy effects.
Heart-healthy food combinations
So what's the good news? Palinski says a few changes can make all the difference in a heart-healthy diet. Here are some of the nutrition expert's best heart-healthy food combinations.
Fiber-rich foods and plant sterols
Combine high soluble fiber foods (including oats, beans, vegetables, fruits, barley) with foods that contain plant sterols, such as beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products. Research shows that plant sterols can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels by as much as 30 percent. Some food manufacturers are also adding plant sterols to such foods as margarines, orange juice, and even granola bars; be sure to read the labels before buying.
Olive oil and tomato sauce
Add a small amount of olive oil to your tomato sauce the next time you eat pasta. "Presence of fat in the diet increases lycopene absorption," says Palinksi. "Lycopene, which has been shown to decrease heart disease risk, is found in high concentration in tomato sauce." Olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fat, is also good for the heart.
Heart-healthy fats in small amounts
Palinski suggests adding a small amount of monounsaturated fat -- from foods such as nuts, avocado, and olive oil -- to a low fat diet (a diet with less than 25 percent of total calories from fat). Research indicates that heart-healthy fats can help lower total blood cholesterol as well as LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while slowing the loss of HDL (good) cholesterol from 10 percent to 3 percent.
Food combinations to avoid for heart health
When evaluating your diet for it's heart health benefits, be sure to avoid these combinations.
B-vitamin foods and animal foods
Foods high in the B vitamins riboflavin and folic acid (including milk, peppers, cruciferous vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals) can reduce blood homocysteine levels; high homocysteine levels are associated with an increased risk for heart disease. Combining B-vitamin foods with animal foods, such as red meat and chicken, can cancel out the heart-health benefits because these animal proteins contain methionine, which helps synthesize homocysteine.
B-vitamin foods and coffee or alcohol
Combining foods high in heart-healthy B-vitamins with excessive levels of coffee and alcohol also counter the heart-helping benefits of B-vitamin foods.
Folic acid and wine
Although red wine, with its powerful antioxidant resveratrol, has been shown to help protect against heart disease, it can counter the heart-healthy benefits of foods rich in folic acid, one of the B-vitamins that help decrease homocysteine levels. When combined, alcohol interferes with the absorption of folic acid and increases excretion of folic acid by the kidneys.
Do your research to make sure the heart-healthy foods you're including in your diet aren't being sabotaged by other foods you're eating.
More heart-healthy diet tips
Mediterranean diet tips for heart health
Shopping tips for heart healthy foods
Heart-healthy tips when dining out