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Cycling Nutrition with Monique Ryan: Protect your heart this season

Cardiovascular disease is still the number one killer in this country, a contributor to heart attacks, high blood pressure, and strokes. Of course, regular exercise and training is good for your heart and raises the helpful HDL cholesterol, but you still need to pay attention to the foods that you consume for optimal heart health.

As we head to the home stretch of Heart Health Month, let’s take a look at some foods that heart smart cyclists should include in their daily training diet and foods they should limit or avoid to keep the ticker ticking. Heart disease is a multifaceted condition that can begin before there is any sign of trouble.

Many of us know our cholesterol and triglyceride numbers, and food intake can have a strong impact on these levels. Lousy, LDL cholesterol fills in plaque, and when oxidized by free radicals, promotes an inflammatory process that causes even more damage. The types of fats that you consume have a strong effect on your LDL cholesterol and inflammation. Elevated triglycerides can be just as risky for your heart. They are a form of fat found in the food that we eat and are also the form of fat created from excess calories and stored as body fat. High triglycerides contribute to artery blockage and abnormalities in blood clotting.

Eat the right kinds of fats

Saturated fat: Of course limiting saturated fat is one of the first steps to heart health, as these fats raise LDL cholesterol. Saturated fat is found mainly in fatty animal foods such as fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb, cheese and whole milk products, highly processed lunchmeats, butter, lard, and shortening.

Trans fat:Trans fats are created from liquid oils that are “partially hydrogenated,” giving commercial products a longer shelf-life. Common sources of trans fats are cookies, snack chips, and crackers. Check labels to limit hydrogenated oil as much as possible, particularly if it is listed as one of the first several ingredients. Trans fats not only raise LDL cholesterol, but also lower the good HDL cholesterol. They may cause other heart damage as well and have a link to inflammation. Look at labels carefully. Even foods labeled “zero trans fat” can contain up to 0.5 grams per serving. Since many of us eat more than one “serving” of these foods, they could increase your trans intake.

Monounsaturated Fat and a few poly’s: monounsaturated fat should constitute the majority of your fat intake. Good monounsaturated fats include olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, almond oil, and hazelnut oil. Nuts and seeds are also a good source of monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. Even as little an intake as 3 to 5 ounces of nuts weekly can lower LDL cholesterol. Nuts also provide omega-3 fats (see below), vitamin E, magnesium, and folic acid. Good nut choices include walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, peanuts and natural peanut butters (not peanut butter with hydrogenated fat). Keep portions moderate, as nuts are calorically dense.

Omega-3 fatty acids: Two of the most potent omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), produce hormone-like compounds that reduce unnecessary blood clotting, boost immune function, and also reduce inflammation. So high intakes of DHA and EPA may help to prevent heart disease, reduce elevated triglycerides, and prevent stroke. Even modest portions from fatty fish like salmon can be effective. More serious doses of 1,000 grams or more daily require supplementation. Speak with your physician if you plan to take high doses.

Other smart food choices

Whole grains: Whole grain consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. A high intake of refined grains, such as white bread, rice, crackers, and pasta can also raise blood triglyercide levels. Aim for at least three servings of whole grains daily, an amount easily consumed with smart shopping and planning. In addition to being a great source of fiber, whole grains provide minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and plant sterols, which all protect the heart. Good choices include brown rice, whole meal pasta, whole grain breads, buckwheat, millet, and bulgur.

Water-soluble fiber: Oatmeal is a whole grain that deserves special consideration in a heart healthy diet because oats provide beta-glucan. This water-soluble fiber binds with cholesterol containing bile and dietary cholesterol, so that they are excreted by the body. Depending on the variety and brand consumed, oatmeal provides 1 to 4g of water-soluble fiber, and contributes 3 to 6g to your total fiber intake. Other sources of water-soluble fiber include dried peas and beans, barley, and flaxseed. All fruits and vegetables contain water-soluble fiber as well. Good sources include apples, pears, carrots, broccoli, berries, and bananas. In fact, eating at least five servings daily of fruits and vegetables can reduce heart disease risk because they also contain phytonutrients and antioxidants. But a hefty eight servings is even better.

Anti-inflammatory foods: besides omega-3’s, other smart food choices can decrease inflammation. Anti-inflammatory herbs and spices include curry, garlic, ginger, rosemary, and turmeric. These seasonings can also help you limit daily salt intake, which is linked to high blood pressure.

Phytosterols: Plant sterols and stanols are naturally found in small quantities in many plant foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals, and legumes, building yet another case for a high intake of these foods. They work to block cholesterol absorption by binding at sites normally reserved for cholesterol, helping to lower LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol. They can also help lower C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation that is linked to increased risk of heart disease. One gram daily can lower cholesterol, with 2 to 3 grams daily being the upper dose. Higher amounts are not recommended, as this could interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Phytosterols have made their way into plant oil spreads and some orange juices. They are also available in softgel dietary supplement form.

Vitamins and Minerals: Getting additional nutrients from whole foods is also beneficial. Plenty of potassium, as found in fruits and vegetables, helps to protect against elevated blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables also provide plenty of protective antioxidants. Food sources of B vitamins, particularly folate and B12 can help keep harmful homocysteine levels down. Good sources of folate include garbanzo beans, kidney beans, asparagus, orange juice, broccoli, and leafy greens.

Chocolate: Chocolate tastes good, so it is no surprise that it has received plenty of press attention regarding it heart health benefits. Antioxidant flavonoids in chocolate can help to decrease blood clotting and dilate blood vessels. Nonfat cocoa solids have the most potent antioxidant power. Good sources are natural cocoa powder, unsweetened baking chocolate, and dark chocolate. But very often chocolate is also high in fat and sugar, and at 150 calories per ounce, watch the portions.

Alcohol: Consume alcohol in moderation. While one drink a day for women and two drinks daily for men has been linked to lower risk for heart disease and stroke, in other persons in may increase triglyceride levels. Even modest amounts of alcohol seem to increase risk of developing breast cancer in women, and alcohol can increase risk of developing other cancer of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, liver, and colon.


Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally recognized nutritionist with over twenty-four years of experience and is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs, a Chicago based nutrition consulting company that provides nutrition programs for endurance athletes across North America (www.moniqueryan.com). Monique has consulted with the Chicago Fire Soccer Team for seven season, and was the nutritionist for Saturn Cycling from 1994 to 2000. She has also consulted with the Volvo-Cannondale Mountain Bike Team, the Gary Fisher Mountain Bike Team, and the Rollerblade Racing Team. Monique has consulted with USA Cycling, and was a member of the Performance Enhancement Team for the Women’s Road Team leading to the 2004 Athens Olympics. She has also provided nutrition consultation services to USA Triathlon for coaching clinics, athlete clinics, and for the resident athlete team and was a member of the USAT Performance Enhancement Team for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Monique is the author of “Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes,” 2nd edition (March 2007), from VeloPress, which provides sports specific nutrition for road cycling, mountain biking, running, triathlon, swimming, rowing, and adventure racing. She is also author of “Performance Nutrition for Winter Sports“(PeakSports Press), “Performance Nutrition for Team Sports” (PeakSports Press), and “Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition.” Monique is a regular contributor to VeloNews, Inside Triathlon, and Outside. She is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. As part of the FeedZone column, Monique will answer selected questions online. Please send your questions to RyanWebQA@aol.com.

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