Public health messages consistently tell you that food has a direct and critical impact on your heart. We know a diet high in inflammatory foods can adversely affect cardiovascular health, but several other nutrients play an essential role in keeping your heart healthy. 

Vitamin K and Omega-3 fatty acids are two of these special nutrients – and each one has unique properties to support your cardiovascular system. 

Root causes for cardiovascular health conditions

When you think about diet and heart health, what comes to mind?  For most people, it’s cholesterol.  While cholesterol levels are important, there are other factors that you should also pay attention to.

One of these factors is arterial calcification. Arterial calcification is the accumulation of calcium in your arteries that can harden them and make it difficult for blood flow to penetrate.1

Healthy arteries are elastic and flexible, which allows for the expansion of blood flow as it moves throughout your body. Calcification hampers this process by restricting movement.2

Arterial calcification also leads to a loss of elasticity and stiffness — both significant risk factors for cardiovascular health events.

Another significant risk factor for adverse cardiovascular health concerns is elevated triglycerides. Similar to cholesterol, triglycerides are a type of fat that can build up in the bloodstream. They are associated with inflammatory biomarkers and increased adverse health risks, even when cholesterol levels are normal.3,4

Elevated triglycerides occur for several reasons, but diet is a major player.  Diets high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, alcohol, and even excessive fructose can contribute to high triglycerides.5

Vitamin K and arterial calcification

Vitamin K is a fat-soluble essential vitamin. While it’s typically known as a vitamin that supports healthy blood clotting, it contributes much more to your body. It’s critical for bone health, which is part of why it also helps keep your arteries healthy.  Small amounts of vitamin K are also synthesised by your gut bacteria.

There are two categories of vitamin K:6

  • Vitamin K1 (Phylloquinone): Found primarily in plants like leafy greens, this form of vitamin K1 is preferentially used by the liver to support clotting.
  • Vitamin K2 (Menaquinone): Vitamin K2 consists of several different (for example, MK-4 or MK-7). It is primarily found in animal foods or fermented products.

Vitamin K, especially K2, can help send calcium to your hard tissues — like bone and teeth — instead of soft tissues like your arteries. As a result, it can help support the movement of calcium out of your arteries, where it can build up and lead to arterial calcification.   

Vitamin K also acts as a cofactor along with vitamin D for building these hard tissues. So not only does it help shuttle calcium from your arteries, but it also helps with the vital task of strengthening bone and teeth.7

Studies show reduced cardiovascular events, mortality, and arterial calcification for people who take in more vitamin K2.8,9 Vitamin K may support reductions in stiffness and improved measurements of arterial health, especially those with more severe stiffness.10,11 Vitamin K may also help by blocking the action of inflammatory cytokines that contribute to calcification.12

Many people take calcium to optimise bone health, especially as they age. However, some physicians suggest that vitamin K should be considered to ensure that supplemental calcium supports bone building without the increased risks of arterial calcification.13

What are the best sources of vitamin K?

Our dietary intake of vitamin K1 is usually higher than K2, primarily from vegetables like leafy greens and broccoli. While your body can convert vitamin K1 to vitamin K2, it likely doesn’t make enough, so getting it through diet or supplementation is often necessary. viii

In addition to leafy greens for vitamin K1, foods high in vitamin K2 include:14

  • Meat
  • Dark chicken
  • Natto
  • Liver
  • Cheese     
  • Egg yolk

However, the recommended intake for vitamin K was made to ensure healthy blood clotting but does not necessarily consider our current understanding of vitamin K for heart health. Therefore higher amounts are likely needed to support both cardiovascular and bone health.

While K1 is relatively easy to get from your diet, K2 is more challenging, especially for people who limit their intake of animal products. And while natto, a fermented soy product, is one of the best sources of vitamin K2, the texture or taste is an acquired preference for many. Supplements won’t replace optimal food choices, but they can effectively help you reach an optimal intake.

Omega-3s and triglycerides

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that have been well studied for their anti-inflammatory benefits. They may support cardiovascular health in several ways, including lowering triglyceride levels.

There are several forms of omega-3 fatty acids, but EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are especially supportive for heart health. These two fatty acids are found primarily in fish. While your body can make small amounts of EPA and DHA from other sources, it’s a small amount, so food or supplements are needed to get enough.

Many studies show that omega-3 fatty acids can support triglyceride reductions to help with risks of cardiovascular health concerns.  For example, a large study examining the effect of a high-dose form of omega-3 found that supplementation significantly reduced the number of cardiovascular-related health events for people who were on medications for cholesterol but still had elevated triglycerides.15  Another extensive review of more than eighty studies found that, on average, omega-3 supplementation reduced triglyceride levels by fifteen percent.16

What are the best sources of omega-3s?

The best source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is seafood.  You can get small amounts of omega-3s from plant sources like walnuts, flax, or hemp seed.  However, the conversion to DHA and EPA isn’t very efficient, so it’s not always enough.

Given this, along with the fact that many people don’t eat fish regularly, supplementation is another option to support reductions in triglyceride levels.

Keep your heart healthy with nutrition

Optimal nutrition plays a huge role in wellness, especially heart health.  There are many ways to support cardiovascular health, but vitamin K and omega-3s can be especially beneficial.  Make sure you get enough of these powerful nutrients in your diet or with supplementation to help support healthy arteries and triglyceride levels.

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2. Doherty, Terence M., Kamlesh Asotra, Lorraine A. Fitzpatrick, Jian-Hua Qiao, Douglas J. Wilkin, Robert C. Detrano, Colin R. Dunstan, Prediman K. Shah, and Tripathi B. Rajavashisth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100, no. 20 (September 30, 2003): 11201–6.

3. Budoff, Matthew. The American Journal of Cardiology 118, no. 1 (July 1, 2016): 138–45.

4. Talayero, Beatriz G., and Frank M. Sacks. Current Cardiology Reports 13, no. 6 (December 2011): 544–52.

5. Parks, E. J. “Effect of Dietary Carbohydrate on Triglyceride Metabolism in Humans.” The Journal of Nutrition 131, no. 10 (October 2001): 2772S-2774S.

6. Booth, Sarah L. “Vitamin K: Food Composition and Dietary Intakes.” Food & Nutrition Research 56 (2012).

7. Mandatori, Domitilla, Letizia Pelusi, Valeria Schiavone, Caterina Pipino, Natalia Di Pietro, and Assunta Pandolfi. “The Dual Role of Vitamin K2 in ‘Bone-Vascular Crosstalk’: Opposite Effects on Bone Loss and Vascular Calcification.” Nutrients 13, no. 4 (April 7, 2021).

8. Geleijnse, Johanna M., Cees Vermeer, Diederick E. Grobbee, Leon J. Schurgers, Marjo H. J. Knapen, Irene M. van der Meer, Albert Hofman, and Jacqueline C. M. Witteman. The Journal of Nutrition 134, no. 11 (November 2004): 3100–3105.

9. Beulens, Joline W. J., Michiel L. Bots, Femke Atsma, Marie-Louise E. L. Bartelink, Matthias Prokop, Johanna M. Geleijnse, Jacqueline C. M. Witteman, Diederick E. Grobbee, and Yvonne T. van der Schouw. “High Dietary Menaquinone Intake Is Associated with Reduced Coronary Calcification.” Atherosclerosis 203, no. 2 (April 2009): 489–93.

10. Knapen, Marjo H. J., Lavienja A. J. L. M. Braam, Nadja E. Drummen, Otto Bekers, Arnold P. G. Hoeks, and Cees Vermeer. Thrombosis and Haemostasis 113, no. 5 (May 2015): 1135–44.

11. Shea, M. Kyla, Sarah L. Booth, Michael E. Miller, Gregory L. Burke, Haiying Chen, Mary Cushman, Russell P. Tracy, and Stephen B. Kritchevsky. “Association between Circulating Vitamin K1 and Coronary Calcium Progression in Community-Dwelling Adults: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 98, no. 1 (July 2013): 197–208.

12. Shioi, Atsushi, Tomoaki Morioka, Tetsuo Shoji, and Masanori Emoto. “The Inhibitory Roles of Vitamin K in Progression of Vascular Calcification.” Nutrients 12, no. 2 (February 23, 2020).

13. Maresz, Katarzyna. “Proper Calcium Use: Vitamin K2 as a Promoter of Bone and Cardiovascular Health.” Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal 14, no. 1 (February 2015): 34–39.

14. Elder, Sonya J., David B. Haytowitz, Juliette Howe, James W. Peterson, and Sarah L. Booth. “Vitamin k Contents of Meat, Dairy, and Fast Food in the u.s. Diet.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 54, no. 2 (January 25, 2006): 463–67.

15. Bhatt, Deepak L., P. Gabriel Steg, Michael Miller, Eliot A. Brinton, Terry A. Jacobson, Steven B. Ketchum, Ralph T. Doyle, et al. The New England Journal of Medicine 380, no. 1 (January 3, 2019): 11–22.

16. Abdelhamid, Asmaa S., Tracey J. Brown, Julii S. Brainard, Priti Biswas, Gabrielle C. Thorpe, Helen J. Moore, Katherine Ho Deane, et al. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 3 (February 29, 2020): CD003177.