What do dark chocolate, broccoli and almonds have in common?
They are good for the heart, along with healthy essentials like soya bean and wholegrains.
While a balanced diet should also cover heart-healthy nutrients, there are some variations to watch for.
Natural sources of soya, such as tofu, tempeh and natto, are better than textured soya protein, said registered dietitian Ujjwala Baxi, founder of nutrition consultancy Poshan - Cure thru Diet.
Natto tends to be genetically modified and made from soya beans which have been stripped of healthy fats.
Soya beans, which are packed with polyunsaturated fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals, have been shown in studies to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as bad cholesterol. It also helps to lower blood pressure.
Meanwhile, wholegrains contain antioxidants, such as phytoestrogens, that protect one against coronary heart disease.
"Try to include soluble fibres like oatmeal, barley, beans and red rice as they help to lower LDL," said Ms Ujjwala. "Pick rolled oats over quick oats, and coarser broken wheat over refined versions like couscous and semolina."
And while nuts can help lower the risk of heart disease by 29 per cent, according to a study, be wary of salted nuts as they may raise blood pressure, she said.
The common refrain that vegetables are good for you also applies to the heart. And leafy greens rich in chlorophyll, like broccoli, spinach and kale, may be especially beneficial for those on cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, she said.
This is because the medication can interfere with the production of a molecule called co-enzyme Q10, and chlorophyll can help to regenerate it. Co-enzyme Q10 is an important antioxidant that fights against heart disease, she said.
Chocolate, on the other hand, contains flavanols. Research has shown that flavanols may potentially benefit vascular health, such as by lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow to the brain and heart.
But dark chocolate trumps other varieties, such as milk and white chocolate, as it boasts a higher concentration of flavanols, as well as less sugar and fat.
This is because of its higher cocoa content. Dark chocolate contains 30 to 90 per cent cocoa, while white chocolate has only about 20 per cent.
For non-chocolate lovers, there is a wide variety of other options - cranberry, apple, onion, tea and red wine are also rich in flavanols.
Some foods to avoid are butter, sour cream and mayonnaise, which are high in saturated fat and can raise bad cholesterol levels.
"Chips and fries are among the worst foods, according to research," said Ms Ujjwala. "They contain saturated fat, which causes your gut to expand and puts your heart in the danger zone."
It is also wise to lower salt intake, which can elevate blood pressure.
One simple way is to use lemon juice instead of adding another dash of salt.
"Do not add salt to boiling water for pasta or vegetables while cooking. Instead, add it to the dish as its impact will be stronger."
Poon Chian Hui
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.