By Janet Bond Brill, Ph.D., R.D., LDN
Sweet and delicious raw, dried, or as jam, figs are one of the plant kingdom’s brightest stars in terms of calcium and fiber content. However, what really labels figs as a bona fide heart attack prevention superfood is their extraordinary amount of carotenoids, most notably lycopene, lutein, and beta-carotene. Few foods on earth are known to contain such an array of heart-health-promoting antioxidants.
Studies show that heart disease death rate drops with each added fruit serving!
That is why figs and other fruit are part of a plan I developed to reverse heart disease, and/or to build good heart health to hopefully avoid heart troubles. My full program is detailed in Prevent a Second Heart Attack: 8 Foods, 8 Weeks to Reverse Heart Disease (PreventaSecondHeartAttack.com). The other key food groups are olive oil, leafy greens, lentils and other legumes, salmon and other seafood, walnuts and flaxseeds, oatmeal and other whole grains, and red wine. Dark chocolate is a bonus food in this plan. Yeah!
Figs, like many of the fruit that Mother Nature has so generously provided us, are nutrient-dense, meaning you get a big nutritional bang for your calorie buck. Fruit contains a good amount of fiber, vitamins, and potassium, plus an extraordinary array of potent plaque-fighting polyphenols. These sweet treats should be part of everyone’s heart-disease-fighting arsenal.
Daily intake of a variety of different types of fruit is good for the heart. Aim to mix ’n’ match your fruit for health. Try a Mediterranean-style fruit such as figs or pomegranate, a vitamin C-rich fruit such as kiwi and don’t forget the other fruits such as apples or bananas. Consuming at least three fruits a day can boost your heart disease defense system by:
• Increasing your body’s antioxidant level—fruit is a virtual antioxidant factory, housing a nice amount of flavonoids, carotenoids, and vitamin C
• Immunizing “bad” LDL cholesterol against free radical attack
• Protecting against endothelial dysfunction. A key early event in the process of atherosclerosis is when an abnormality in the functioning of the inner layer of the artery wall—the endothelium—arises, termed “endothelial dysfunction”
• Lowering your blood pressure. Fruits—especially bananas, oranges, and prunes—are loaded with potassium. Potassium is a mineral superstar when it comes to helping you attain a healthy blood pressure reading
• Helping you control your weight. Fiber-rich, low-calorie fruits and vegetables increase feelings of satiety, which helps with weight control. So as you fill up on those low-calorie, antioxidant-packed fruits and veggies, you’ll also watch your waistline go down—slowly but surely.
Here are a few ideas to help you get in your minimum of three servings of whole fruit a day — to help you and your heart:
• Make fresh fruit and whole grains standard breakfast fare. Add seasonal berries or dried fruit such as cranberries into your oatmeal (the heart-healthiest breakfast cereal). If you drink juice at breakfast, switch to eating a whole fruit —this way you get more fiber and flavonoids in fewer calories—a bargain that both your heart and your waistline can appreciate!
• Add figs or other dried fruits like cranberries, apricots, or currants to your dark green leafy salad—a delicious, sweet addition to spruce up the salad as well as give you a feast of antioxidants, especially if you dress the salad with lemon juice and an olive oil vinaigrette.
• Try fruit for dessert. If you just can’t go to bed without a little something sweet, why not try some dried figs? And no, I’m not talking about a certain famous fig cookie, two of which give you a mere 1 gram of fiber (not to mention lots of added sugar, salt, and even some artery-clogging trans fat). Compare that to the real thing—what Mother Nature intended for us to eat—two dried figs, which offer a whopping 5 grams of fiber, a huge cache of blood-pressure-lowering potassium (348 milligrams), and a nice dose of bone-building calcium, with 0 added sugar or fat. If it was good enough for Cleopatra, why not give it a try?
• Make fruit easily accessible. Place an eye-appealing bowl of assorted fruit smack dab in the center of high-traffic areas in your house and be sure to grab a piece when you walk by.
Substitute fruit for fat in baking recipes. Mashed bananas or prune puree work astonishingly well in baked goods. They add moistness with fiber and flavonoids—but without the fat. If you’re not a baker, dried figs are a tasty addition to soups or legume dishes and add a hint of sweetness. You may be surprised at how some foods truly come alive with the addition of this colorful and healthy, class of super foods.
Janet Brill, Ph.D., R.D., LDN, is a leading diet, nutrition, and fitness expert. She is the author of Prevent a Second Heart Attack and Cholesterol Down. Learn more at www.drjanet.com.