Oranges have been from time immemorial a staple food in the Mediterranean countries. They have also been a major player in protecting the people of that region from heart disease.
Thus, if you've never thought of oranges as a "must" food for your heart, here are some good reasons to start doing so:
Oranges and vitamin C
Oranges are very rich in vitamin C. This vitamin has the following effects:
- It protects our arteries from free radicals, highly damaging molecules that cause our cells to oxidise.
- It helps prevent the oxidation of cholesterol; oxidised cholesterol sticks to the walls of our arteries, building up plaque. Plaque can grow large enough to block blood flow in our blood vessels, causing a heart attack or stroke.
- It helps to recycle vitamin E, one of the most powerful antioxidants and the first line of defence when it comes to the oxidation of our cells.
Oranges and folate
Oranges are naturally rich in folate, or folic acid, a vitamin of the B group. One role of folate is to process the amino acid homocysteine in our body.
When folate is lacking, homocysteine is not broken down, piles up in our blood vessels and becomes toxic, even in small amounts. The accumulation of high levels of homocysteine in the blood may cause a heart attack – even among people who have adequate cholesterol levels.
Oranges and minerals
Sodium. Oranges are very low in sodium. When we eat foods containing a large amount of sodium (salt), we retain a large volume of fluid in our blood vessels that needs to be moved around by the heart. The result is that we end up with high blood pressure.
Potassium. Oranges are high in potassium, a mineral that plays a key role in heart functions and muscle contractions, making it an important nutrient for a healthy heart. It works with sodium to regulate the water balance in the body. Diets low in sodium and high in potassium lower blood pressure, reducing the risk for strokes.
Calcium. Oranges contain a good amount of calcium, a mineral extremely important in maintaining normal blood pressure. It is required for nerve transmission and regulation of heart muscle contraction. Many studies have shown that as we increase the consumption of foods with a high content of calcium, the risk of high blood pressure decreases, especially if we maintain adequate intakes of magnesium.
Magnesium. Oranges are also rich in magnesium. This mineral is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. Having adequate amounts of magnesium in the body helps your heart maintain a steady rhythm and normal blood pressure.
Oranges and phytochemicals
The word "phyto" means "plant" in Greek. Phytochemicals are non-nutritive chemicals found in plant foods that protect their host plants from infections and microbial invasions. Through research we have learned that phytochemicals are also crucial in protecting humans against disease.
Some phytochemicals found in oranges are:
- Flavonones, anthoctanins, hydroxycinnamic acids and polyphenols. These phytochemicals are one large family of protective antioxidants commonly seen in foods rich in vitamin C. In the body, they fight inflammation and free radicals, prevent platelets from sticking together, block certain molecules that raise blood pressure, and strengthen the small blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to the body cells.
- Hesperidin. In animal studies, the flavonone hesperidin has been shown to lower high blood pressure and cholesterol as well as to have strong anti-inflammatory properties. This component is found in the peel and inner white pulp of the orange. To reap the full benefits of oranges, grate a tablespoon of the peel and use it to flavour tea, salads, yoghurt, soups, and cereals.
Oranges and fibre
One orange contains about 3g of fibre: 60 percent is soluble fibre and 40 percent insoluble. Both types are important for our health, but soluble fibre is the one that lowers cholesterol.
Pectin, the soluble fibre that's found mainly in the skin around each orange section and in the peel, helps trap and eliminate cholesterol from the body. Try to eat a little of the white part of the orange peel; it contains half of the fruit's pectin supply.
Vitamin C supplements
Vitamin C supplements do not accomplish in our body what fresh oranges do. So make an effort to get your vitamins from fresh foods. However, if you decide to continue taking vitamin C supplements, keep the following in mind:
- Do not exceed 2g of vitamin C a day because when quantities exceed the body needs, it can become a pro-oxidant.
- If you decide to discontinue your intake of large doses of vitamin C supplements, don't stop all of a sudden. Do it gradually to prevent a deficiency.
- Vitamin C supplements are dangerous for people with iron overload because it enhances iron absorption and releases iron from body stores. Free iron in the body causes the kind of cellular damage typical of free radicals.
I hope by now you are convinced you need to include oranges in your daily life to prevent or control heart disease.
Remember: one orange a day keeps heart attacks away. One orange contains all the vitamin C your body needs for the day. If you have a farmers' market in your area, pay a visit to those local farmers and look for organic fresh oranges. They're delicious!
Oranges contain some oxalic acid and should be restricted for those with calcium-oxalate stones.
- (Emilia Klapp, December 2007)
[About the Author: Emilia Klapp is a registered dietician and author of "Your Heart Needs the Mediterranean Diet". The book is written in clear language and is an excellent read for anyone interested in dietary means to improve cardiac health. For more information about the author and the book and to get a free list of the 10 top Mediterranean curative foods, visit www.mediterraneanheart.com.]