My Heart Beats for Banana Bread

I am sure it has become evident that my sense of humour tends to appear in the titles of my posts and this is no exception. In a literal sense I do absolutely adore banana bread, I would go so far as to say it is my favourite baked good of all time (sorry carrot cake…) and in a terrific turn of events this particular recipe uses ingredients that all happen to be fabulous for your heart health. Can I get a high five? For those who remain sceptical about this delicious anytime indulgence I say give it one more go and see if I can change your mind.

Right lets talk technical…

Oats: The oat flour base provides great levels of fibre including a particular form called beta-glucan which is known to lower cholesterol levels. Research shows that consuming 3g of this wonderful stuff a day can decrease your cholesterol between 8-23%. So far so wonderful. It gets even better though when you add that for every 1% drop in serum cholesterol you decrease your cardiovascular disease risk by 2%. Reaching for that mixing bowl yet?

So how is this happening? As it moves through the gut beta-glucan sticks to cholesterol and prevents it from being absorbed further down the digestive tract, this then causes the body to draw more cholesterol out of the blood stream to use in making hormones and other bodily functions.  Double whammy for the oats. Recent studies have also highlighted a further cardio protective mechanism of this fibre. Avenanthramides, a unique antioxidant found only in oats prevents free radicals from oxidising LDL cholesterol which would make it even more reactive and thus damaging to surrounding tissue. Once again oats to the rescue.

Then we get to the numerous micronutrients including Magnesium, Selenium and Zinc as well as Vitamin E and carotenoids.

Magnesium has many vital roles to play within the body (never fear there is an upcoming post dedicated just to this magnificent mineral) but sticking to the heart specifically it acts as a gatekeeper within the heart cells to control Calcium concentration. This is what causes our heart muscle to contract and without our good friend Magnesium standing guard you’d get Calcium flooding into the cells and a state of hyper contraction (too many beats per minute). In the long term this damages the heart muscle leading to conditions including angina and heart attack.

Selenium is integral for the production of glutathione peroxidase, one of our most potent antioxidants which protects our blood vessels from damage. When this system is compromised we end up with a situation referred to as endothelial dysfunction which is a major contributing factor to high blood pressure.

Zinc like Magnesium is required for many enzymatic reactions in the body and is especially important within the immune system to balance inflammatory response. The exact role of Zinc within cardiovascular health is an area of emerging research but it is currently accepted that it has protective effects in cases of coronary artery disease and cardiomyopathy. Increasingly Zinc is also shown to improve heart function following cardiac events. Watch this space!

Vitamin E and carotenoids are yet more powerful antioxidants which travel around the body mopping up free radicals. Ever spent ages waiting in a queue at one of these extremely cool new restaurants which won’t seat you until your entire party has arrived? Felt your blood pressure rising whilst complete parties skip past you and start perusing the menu? Irritating isn’t it, makes you want to grab a lone passer by to sit in whilst that one always late friend gets their act together. That’s you being a free radical, but they’re a little more bolshy and go right ahead and ‘steal’ that poor passer by (or electron) to fill their table (electron shell). The problem is that it’s not a random passer by they’re borrowing, it’s an electron from one of your body’s cells which then becomes damaged. Not so great. But in swoop your antioxidants who happily fill in that space, neutralise the free radical and then potter off into the distance to continue their good samaritan ways elsewhere. And with that I’m going to move on from oats (for today at least).

Bananas: or the potassium powerhouse if you are so inclined. At 400mg plus per medium sized fruit these guys pack a serious blood pressure lowering punch. Potassium does this by contributing to the delicate balance with Sodium in the kidneys which controls how much water we reabsorb and retain. Too much Sodium (salt) and/or too little Potassium and we reabsorb more water causing our blood pressure to rise.

Then there’s their plant sterol content. The compounds sitosterorel, campesterol and stigmasterol found in bananas all have similar chemical structures to cholesterol and attach to cells within our intestines to block dietary cholesterol absorption. This then means we take up more from our bloodstream and circulating cholesterol levels fall.

Thirdly there’s the 3g or thereabouts of soluble fibre per banana which like with our new best friends oats, binds to cholesterol and helps eliminate it from our system. Big ticks for bananas.

Walnuts: talk about an undervalued resource! These beauties are a diamond mine of rare and brilliant nutrients. The unusual form of Vitamin E in walnuts (gamma tocopherol) has been studied and shown to be of particular benefit in maintaining good cardiovascular health in men.

Phytonutrient research into the specific anti-inflammatory and antioxidant mechanisms of walnuts have bumped these babies right up towards the top of the list for preventing not only cardiovascular disease, but also Type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Certain compounds including the quinone Juglone, the tannin Tellimagrandin and the flavonol Morin are found in virtually no other commonly eaten foods and  contribute to the cancer preventing power of walnuts.

And if that wasn’t enough to have you liberally sprinkling them left, right and centre heres a final one for you…..

Omega 3 fatty acids have been extensively shown to improve a wide variety of cardiovascular functions, maintain blood vessel flexibility and counteract inflammation. Walnuts contain a form known as Alpha-linolenic acid and consumption of as little as 4 nuts a day can improve blood levels of ALA. Waheey for walnuts!

Coconut Oil: “take coconut oil and apply to life”. Oh go on then as you’ve twisted my arm I’ll elaborate ever so slightly.

This new fix-all has been plastered everywhere in recent months and for very good reason. Coconut oil is jam packed with antioxidants including flavanoids and polyphenols which act to reduce oxidative stress within the body. Oxidative stress is a big no-no when it comes to our general health but to avoid endless digression I’ll stay on our heart related train of thought for the time being.

Within the cardiovascular system oxidative stress (AKA the free radical damage which we touched on earlier) is implicated in the development of atherosclerotic plaques as our immune system rushes to the aid of an injured blood vessel. Similar essentially to the process of scab formation when you cut yourself, our immune cells aggregate at this point and there you have the beginnings of atherosclerosis. If allowed to develop this will destabilise the wall of the blood vessel and the plaque can rupture releasing a thrombus. If this travels around the body it can become lodged and cut off the blood flow to that area, in the brain this would be a stroke or in the lung a pulmonary embolism . Basically we don’t want this to happen. If the plaque doesn’t rupture (different types will progress differently) and just grows in situ it will narrow the space available for blood to flow through and can eventually block it altogether, in a coronary artery this is a heart attack.

So how is coconut oil going to save us from this grizzly end? By jumping in right at the very start and stopping the oxidative stress in its tracks. That’s right no injured blood vessel, no excessive inflammatory response, no plaque. This has been seen to be especially helpful in the elderly but don’t think is just for people who’ve already got these little gremlins lurking, start now and avoid them even thinking about turning up in the first place. Win number one.

Then there’s the other brilliant effect of polyphenols, they prevent and help reverse the stiffening of blood vessels. Every time your heart beats it literally shoots blood out into your entire blood vessel network under huge pressure (its got to get it all the way to the tips of your toes remember). As a healthy individual your blood vessels are lovely and elastic allowing them to stretch and spring back with each powerful pulse. The big bad guy that is oxidative stress however causes the blood vessels to harden so instead of accommodating this vital flow they remain taught against it, and that my friends is increased blood pressure.

And finally there’s the link with the digestive system (there had to be one!). Coconut oil promotes the production of enzymes and bile which act to break down and emulsify fats within our gut, aiding digestion and ultimately removal from our systems. This leads to increased removal of cholesterol and total fats from the body. Can I get a clap for our pal coconut oil?

Still not convinced? Well I guess I’ll have to do better when I take you through the world of fabulous fats in more detail soon but for now just one more nugget of fairy dust for today. The Veddas or Sri Lankan ‘forest people’ lead a lifestyle relatively unchanged from that of their ancestors 1000 years ago. The majority of their diet is composed of yams and fruit with occasional game shot with bow and arrows, where is she going with this you may ask? Well more than anything else they all eat coconuts, an average of 120 whole coconuts each a year (that’s a lot of coconut!). Consequently the majority of their dietary fat is obtained from these babies and here’s the best bit, even though 39% of the community smoke there was not one case of heart disease. Pretty good ey!

So whilst you’re thoroughly enjoying that first warm slice later on you can give yourself a little pat on the back in the knowledge that the rest of your body is revelling in it just as much as your tastebuds are. All that’s left for me to say is Happy Baking! (and can I lick the spoon?!)

Brilliant Banana Bread

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