An estimated 610,000 people in the U.S. die from heart disease each year. One common cause of heart disease is the narrowing of blood vessels due to the buildup of fatty deposits (plaque). Many factors—including eating a lot of fatty foods—can lead to plaque buildup in blood vessels.
Your liver processes excess fat by packaging it into cholesterol droplets known as low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). LDLs travel throughout the body in the blood. Often, the droplets get stuck to the blood vessel walls, where they accumulate. The buildup of plaque eventually blocks blood flow, most often in the blood vessels that supply blood to your heart. However, eating fiber can help prevent the early stages of heart disease and plaque buildup.
Fiber is a plant’s supply of stored energy, but your gut can’t digest it. During a meal, your small intestine breaks down the food you eat and absorbs nutrients. Fiber resembles a mesh-like structure. Indigestible fiber acts like a large net—think of a butterfly net—to block places where fat can be absorbed. A meal high in dietary fiber blocks some of the absorption of fats, stopping fats from moving outside the gut into the bloodstream.
When there is less fat absorbed from your gut, your liver does not have to package it into LDL droplets, which lowers LDL levels in the blood. In addition, when your liver needs fat to make hormones and bile, it can produce another kind of cholesterol called high-density lipoproteins (HDL). HDL can remove some of the plaque in blood vessels and send it back to the liver. HDL is known as “good cholesterol” for this reason. Consuming meals high in fiber can help HDL with this process.
Recent studies have shown that eating fiber-rich brown rice or taking more than 5 grams of fiber supplements daily can improve some measures of cardiovascular function in adults. Leafy or green vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and broccoli are also good sources of fiber. So make a salad or try adding greens to an entree or a smoothie—I promise you can’t even taste blended spinach in a fiber-packed smoothie. There are plenty of options to fiber up your diet and keep your heart healthy.
Gabrielle Rowe is a PhD candidate in the physiology program at the University of Louisville. She is interested in studying small heart vessel function, stem cells and aging.