By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

When I met with Dr. Shyla High, a cardiologist affiliated with Baylor Heart and Vascular Hospital in Dallas, the first subject that came up was breast cancer.

“I applaud the whole pink ribbon and breast cancer awareness campaign,” Dr. High said over coffee at Starbucks. “But that’s not what’s killing us,” she said, echoing the title of her book, Why Most Women Die — How Women Can Fight Their #1 Killer: Heart Disease.

Why Most Women Die

Dr. High’s new book emphasizes that the number one killed of women is heart disease, yet we tend to think of men as being more at risk of heart attack.

“Your chances of dying of heart disease are 1 in 3. Your chances of dying of breast cancer are about 1 in 30,” she said.

In short, even though about 12 percent of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, improved screening and treatments will help nearly 90 percent survive.

That’s not the case for heart disease, which claims the lives of 600,000 Americans every year, and is the leading cause of death for both genders, according to the American Heart Association.

Women have special vulnerabilities that can worsen their risk of heart disease and their prognosis, compared with men, High said. Those female factors include:

  • Screenings can be ambiguous, failing to reveal a looming problem, because the focus for many years has been on men’s risk factors and their impact, which can vary from that of their wives, sisters and mothers.
  • Diabetes, which increases the risk of heart trouble for both genders affects more women than men and is especially “plaque promoting” for women.
  • Obesity, which increases the risk of diabetes, and in turn heart attack, can be more problematic for women because the fat they develop around their midsection is more dangerous. “Ab flab is really the bad actor because the inside fat is very metabolically active so it promotes inflammatory markers,” High said, meaning it can trigger the clogged arteries that lead to heart attacks.
  • Heart attack signs in women may or may not include chest pain. Early warning signs can manifest as abdominal pain, fatigue, shortness of breath and sleep disturbances. Complicating the matter, 75 percent of chest pain in women is NOT heart related, High said. This confusion can confound emergency room doctors and lead women to not get help in time.

The good news is that women can wipe away up much of the risk with lifestyle changes, by losing weight, quitting smoking and exercising (the American Health Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise like walking 5 times a week) and improving their diet.

High believes that switching to healthier foods may be the easiest and certainly the most delicious change that women can make. Here are her favorite foods for cardio health:


Heart Healthy - Avocado 2

(Photo: Aidan Kessler, GreenRightNow)


This is a “high fat” food that’s healthy because it offers the right fat, a combination of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which do not raise “bad” LDL cholesterol. This dense fruit also delivers healthy calories with vitamins E, B6, folic acid, potassium and vitamin K. The California Avocado Commission proudly touts the heart-healthy aspects of its fruit, noting that vitamin K is considered helpful for the blood.

Green note: Avocados are considered to be among the cleaner foods when it comes to pesticide residues, because of their thick skins.

Heart Healthy -- Almonds


These nuts have polyphenols, which break down into bioflavonoids, which help cultivate good vascular health. Almonds also have “good” fats, which means they help control cholesterol and lower your risk of heart disease. You just need to get a “few handfuls” every week, or about 23 almonds every day, according to the Almond Board of California.

Almonds may top the list, but other nuts, like walnuts, cashews and even peanuts, are heart-healthy because they are protein rich and contain the right fats. Digesting peanuts requires a thermal response, says High, which pushes the metabolism up, making peanuts a “fat fighting” food too.

Green note: If you like almonds, you should love bees, because they’re needed to pollinate the almond orchards in California. Bees are in decline around the world because of heavy pesticide use, among other reasons, which jeopardizes the one-third of our plant foods that depend upon pollinators.  Do what you can to reduce pesticide use, at home and at the grocery store by buying organic. Learn more at The Xerces Society.

Blueberries at Farmers Market Coppell...Lisa Lucido

Photo: GreenRightNow)

Blueberries and Strawberries

Who could ask for better tasting, heart-saving foods? A major study known as the Nurse’s Health Study, which followed 93,000 women for 18 years, found that three servings a week of blueberries and strawberries (combined) reduced heart attack risk in women by up to one-third. The reason? Certain flavonoids, specifically anthocyanins, in the berries promote healthier endothelial cells (the lining of blood vessels), thereby preventing heart attacks. This is solid, recent (2012) data that should be put to immediate use, says High.

Green note: Buy blueberries from your local farmers market and they likely have been grown with few or no chemicals, being easier to cultivate. Strawberries, which are grown conventionally and organically, are likely to have chemical residues unless they’re organic.

Heart Healthy Foods Chocolate

(Photo: Aidan Kessler, GreenRightNow)

Dark Chocolate

Chocolate with a 70 percent or higher cocoa content has been shown to have a protective effect on the heart, because flavonoids in the chocolate can improve blood flow and counter hypertension. But stick to just an ounce to ounce and a half in a given day, says High, who notes that research with the Panama’s Kuna Indians has confirmed the value of dark cocoa.

These studies found that the Kunas, living on an island off Panama, do not have high blood pressure and are nearly heart attack free because of the flavonoids in the cocoa the tribe consumes (picked fresh, dried and then made into a drink). Specifically, the cocoa contains epicatechins, also are found in black grapes, blackberries and green tea. Related catechins are found in high levels in green tea, and lower levels in apples, cherries and raspberries, more evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will do your heart good.

Green note: Look for Fair Trade dark chocolate and cocoa to assure that cocoa farmers are treated fairly and the land is farmed sustainably.

Heart Healthy -- Salmon


By now you’ve heard that the Omega 3s in salmon (and tuna, sardines, mackerel and grass-fed meats) will keep the ticker in shape. But why are these “essential fatty acids” so essential? For starters, our body simply needs them for smooth functioning; they also counterbalance the Omega 6s, oils that we get too much of in our American diet, which is heavy with snack and fast foods cooked in cheap oils.

Omega 6s run amok cause inflammation, which destabilizes plaque in arteries, and you know what happens then. Fight the imbalance of oils and keep your arteries clear with Omega 3s. Remember the Inuit Eskimos. They eat tons of fatty fish, and it helps them. They have high HDL or “good” cholesterol and lower triglycerides, in other words, whatcha want.

Green note: Wild salmon has been found to be less contaminated than farmed salmon, which should not be eaten too frequently because of contaminants. This is yet another reason to care about climate change, which is devastating the wild salmon’s cold water habitats.

Heart Healthy - KaleKale

Just pause and bow before this super food that’s packed with Vitamins A and C, iron and calcium. Then get ready to saute, roast or toss this ruffled, hearty green. But while kale is great, it’s really just king of the greens, followed by a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables that deliver the antioxidants humans need to keep their blood vessels in good condition.

People have some plaque in their arteries, says Dr. High. It’s not a problem until something changes “a stable plaque to an unhealthy plaque, where the body says, ‘I need to go repair that.'”

That’s when a clot is formed, potentially cutting off the blood supply to the heart and….enough said. Antioxidants can prevent that situation by “stabilizing the environment of plaque,” High says. Much more can be said about antioxidants, and it’s all good. They help fend off cancer and neurological decline.

So, women and men, go eat healthfully says Dr. High, especially you baby boomers who are heading into the riskiest years (though one-third of heart attacks affect people under 50).

“If you eat right — almonds, blueberries, dark chocolate, fruits vegetables, whole wheat fiber, low fat dairy — that has a favorable impact on glucose, cholesterol, the stiffening of the arteries, the environment of the arteries,” she said.

Green note: When it comes to greens, grow your own! It’s easy. Kale, spinach, Swiss chard or mustard greens can produce for months in your garden or even a patio container. Then you can trim some whenever you need it for a side dish, casserole or salad.

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