The Athletes Kitchen: Nutrition and Heart Health

By Nancy Clark, R.D., FACSM

Although exercise is one of the best ways to improve heart health, even athletes are not immune from heart disease.

The following bits of information from that conference might inspire you eat wisely to keep your heart beating for a long and healthful lifetime.

First of all, when it comes to heart disease, you should know your cholesterol numbers. Get your blood tested for total, LDL and HDL cholesterol. Having a low LDL is the primary goal for reducing heart disease. If your LDL is >160 mg/dL, the sooner you lower it to <130, the better off you’ll be.

Foods that actively lower LDL include oats, barley, soy, beans, almonds/nuts, and plant sterols/stanols (added to margarines such as Benecol). Although each single food might have only a small cholesterol-lowering effect; for example, consuming three glasses of soy milk a day might lower LDL by only 5 percent, while combining several of these foods becomes very powerful. In subjects with high blood cholesterol, a diet rich in oats, nuts, soy, and phytosterol-enriched margarine reduced LDL by almost 30 percent in four weeks. That's as powerful as cholesterol-lowering drugs!

Oatmeal is easy to add into a sports diet. If cooking oats is not your style, simply eat them raw, mixed in with cold cereal. For example, Wheaties + raw oats + slivered almonds + (soy) milk + fruit creates an easy heart-healthy breakfast. Microwaving a packet of instant oatmeal (with a spoonful of peanut butter) creates a tasty, effective pre-exercise and/or afternoon snack.

Inflammation, caused by cholesterol-filled plaques in blood vessels, plays a role in heart disease. Foods that reduce inflammation include salmon and other oily fish, walnuts, fiber-rich whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and even dark chocolate. Among fruits and veggies, the Big Six are apricots, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, broccoli and spinach. Eat them often!

This content was provided by American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the world's largest sports medicine and exercise science organization and proud content provider for NBA FIT