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Heart healthy African foods
In spite of the wars, drought, and famine that reportedly make headlines in some African countries, majority are blessed as “bread baskets” for various food commodities.
Several African foods and vegetables have been shown to keep heart healthy and working at its best. Some help lower blood pressure, while others help contain inflammation while building healthy heart muscles and strength and keeping cholesterol and other bad fats at bay.
Below is a non-exclusive and non-exhaustive list of food and vegetables items that are good to add to the African middle class family grocery buy list for consumption towards maintenance of a healthy heart.
1. African Avocados
Avocados are grown extensively in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. These fruits get their creamy texture from “good” (monounsaturated) fats, which lower “bad” cholesterol.
They are also a good source of various other nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, flavonoids, carotenoids, dietary fibers, and essential fatty acids, etc. These compounds make avocados not only beneficial for heart health but also the health of other body organs like the liver, brain, bones, eyes, etc.,
Avocados can be eaten fresh, used as a spread in place of butter, or added as cubes to salad, oats, cooked black eye bean chili and a variety of other heart healthy African dishes. Note that avocados are rich in calories, so eat modest servings at a time.
Chick peas, brown beans, black eyed peas and numerous other legumes abound all over Africa and are a top-notch source of protein for heart muscle as well as soluble fiber -- the kind of fiber that lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol. Buy and cook the fresh legumes and not the pre-cooked, canned beans. Most of these canned products contain high salt content that can raise your blood pressure. Canned beans also contain several other additives and preservatives that may be harmful to heart health.
3. Berries and other fruits and vegetables
Several varieties of berries that abound in Africa are loaded with polyphenols -- antioxidants that mop up damage-causing free radicals in the body. They also deliver fiber and vitamin C, which are both linked to cell repair and lowered risk of stroke.
Options: Any berries -- Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries. Fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and spinach in general are excellent choices because of their nutrients and fiber.
Cocoa, prepared as the natural cocoa powder or dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, which can help relax blood vessels thereby lowering blood pressure and prevent blood clots. It also acts as an antioxidant, which can keep “bad” cholesterol from sticking to artery walls. When consuming cocoa products, be mindful of added sugar as sugar raises risk of heart disease.
Nibbling on 150 gm or nearly half a tea-cup full of different varieties of nuts each week most likely cuts your risk of heart disease in half. Peanuts, walnuts and other legume nuts common in Africa have lots of “good” fats and consuming these high monounsaturated fat containing nuts in place of saturated fats (such as butter), helps to cut levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) while raising the “good” cholesterol (HDL). While walnuts are also a good source of omega-3 fats that are different from the omega-3s obtained from fish, peanuts are good sources of heart healthy protein, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, minerals and vitamins. Refrain from taking nuts if allergic to any variety.
Whole oats/oatmeal, Whole wheat, Whole-grain corn, Brown rice, Whole-grain barley, Cracked wheat, Millet, Quinoa, Sorghum are varieties of oats that abound all over Africa. Oats have a type of fiber (called beta-glucan) that lowers LDL cholesterol. Oats fibers also have the added benefit of providing roughage for digestive health.
7. Red Grapes
Red grapes grown in South Africa and used in making red wines are known to have resveratrol, which helps keep platelets in blood from sticking together. This is why wines are touted for their heart health advantages over other types of alcohol. Be mindful however that red wines may also contain significant alcohol and therefore should be drunk in moderation.
8. Salmon or any local variety of oily fresh fish
Many varieties of ocean-going fish that abound in Africa’s territorial and deep sea waters are top choices for consumption towards healthy heart because they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have anti-blood clotting effect, so they keep blood flowing well. They also help lower the bad fat (triglycerides) that leads to heart disease.
As may be affordable, aim for at least two servings of oily fresh fish per week. A serving is about 100 gm. This is a little bigger than the head of a moderate pestle.
Don’t be tempted to want to consume the traditional African smoked fish in place of fresh fish, as this may likely be contaminated with cancer causing and heart harmful agents during the smoking process.
Options: Fresh tuna, trout, sardines, and mackerel (not canned).
9. Vegetable oils high in unsaturated fat
Red palm oil, a stable of West Africa has been credited with providing protection against heart disease. But different studies have presented mixed reviews regarding the heart health benefits of palm oil. While some have called it the African equivalent of olive oil, because of its known lowering of “bad” LDL cholesterol while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol, others have challenged this notion. Nonetheless, the preponderance of evidence suggests that palm oil is beneficial to heart and brain health as well being a good source of Vitamin A.
Other options: Canola oil, olive oil and safflower oil.
Yogurts and goat milk cheese are dairy products that are high in potassium and little or no saturated fat. These products helps to improve heart muscle strength and lower your cholesterol respectively. Be sure to minimize added sugars in your yogurt as too much sugar is detrimental to heart health.
Other options: Most African fruits and vegetables have potassium in addition to other vitamins and minerals. Bananas, oranges, and sweet potatoes are especially good sources.
Published: October 15. 2019
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