5 Heart-Healthy Nutrients for Athletes

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and lifestyle changes can play a significant role in preventing this common disease. Your heart is the most important muscle in your body, so this Heart Health Month, focus on factoring these nutrients into your diet to maintain a healthy, efficient heart.

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

For decades, diet gurus preached that a low-fat diet is the best way to maintain weight and keep your heart healthy. While an excess of fat can contribute to blocked arteries, we've learned in recent years that not all fats are created equal.

There are "good" fats and "bad" fats. Typically, plant-based fats such as avocados, olive oil, flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds (yes, like your Chia Pet) are favored over animal fats, with the exception of salmon, which is an Omega-3 powerhouse.

These "healthy" fats such as Omega-3 fatty acids lower your risk of coronary heart disease by reducing your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which is the "bad" cholesterol. You may have heard Omega-3 fatty acids called "essential" fatty acids. This means they are necessary for human health but the body cannot make them—you have to get them through food. It is best to consume your Omega-3 fatty acids from a natural source, but fish oil supplements are another option.

2. Fiber-Rich Whole Grains

After the low-fat fad faded, the low-carb frenzy was the next "secret" to weight loss. However, some high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets lack the heart-healthy fiber found in whole grains. Unrefined, fiber-rich whole grains such as steel cut oatmeal, bran, quinoa, and other whole grain products are essential for heart health and peak athletic performance.

Your body digests whole grains much more slowly than simple carbs, such as sugar and white bread. Therefore, whole grains keep blood sugar and insulin levels steady, provide sustained energy, and keep you feeling full. Finally, the fiber found in whole grains help lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Be sure to incorporate whole grains as an integral part of your diet for sustained energy and a healthy heart.

3. Soy Protein

In recent years, you have probably noticed a rise in popularity of soy-based products such as soy milk and tofu. Recent studies have linked soy protein with a reduced risk of heart disease. It has been found that the consumption of soy protein has led to a reduction in LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol), an increase in HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol), and a reduction in triglycerides, a type of fat.

Soy products contain phytosterols and phytostanols, which are the molecules found in plant foods that hold this cholesterol-lowering property. However, be careful you don't fall into the marketing hype around soy products. Your soy sources may be genetically modified, so make sure you are consuming soy from natural sources such as soybeans, okra, tempeh, or edamame.

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