22 Heart-Healthy Foods to Start Eating ASAP
While deaths due to heart disease have dropped in recent years, it's still the No. 1 killer of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The good news? We now know a ton more about how to prevent cardiovascular disease, which includes both strokes and heart attacks—and it's clear that healthy eating and living (like exercising more!) can make a huge difference.
Here, nutritionists highlight what you should be including in your diet to keep your ticker happy for decades to come.
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Salmon and other fatty fish such as sardines and mackerel are the superstars of heart-healthy foods. That's because they contain copious amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, shown in studies to lower the risk of arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) and atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries) and decrease triglycerides. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish and preferably fatty fish at least twice a week, but you can also get omega-3-rich fish oils as dietary supplements, though they may not have the DHA and EPA omega-3s specifically found in fatty fish.
Oatmeal is high in soluble fiber, which can lower cholesterol. "It acts as a sponge in the digestive tract and soaks up the cholesterol so it is eliminated from the body and not absorbed into the bloodstream," says Lauren Graf, a registered dietician and co-director of the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Graf recommends avoiding instant oatmeal, which often contains sugar, and heading instead for old-fashioned or even quick-cooking oats.
Not just blueberries, but strawberries and other berries as well. According to a 2013 study women aged 25 through 42 who ate more than three servings of blueberries and strawberries a week had a 32% lower risk of heart attack compared with those who ate less. The authors of the study attributed the benefit to compounds known as anthocyanins, flavonoids (which are antioxidants) that may decrease blood pressure and dilate blood vessels. Anthocyanins give plants their red and blue colors.
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Several studies have now shown that dark chocolate may benefit your heart, This includes one from 2012, which found that daily chocolate consumption could reduce nonfatal heart attacks and stroke in people at high risk for these problems. The findings applied only to dark chocolate, meaning chocolate made up of at least 60-70% cocoa. Dark chocolate contains flavonoids called polyphenols, which may help blood pressure, clotting, and inflammation. Unfortunately, milk chocolate and most candy bars don't make the grade when it comes to protecting your heart.
Women who consume high amounts of the flavonoids found in oranges and grapefruits have a 19% lower risk of ischemic stroke (caused by a clot) than women who don't get as much of these compounds, a 2012 study found. Citrus fruits are also high in vitamin C, which has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease.
Stick with whole citrus fruits, which also provide filling fiber, or small portions of fresh squeezed or 100% citrus juice. And be aware that grapefruit products may interfere with the action of the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins.
There's no reason to shun potatoes because they're white and look like a "bad" starch. As long as they're not deep fried, potatoes can be good for your heart. They're rich in potassium, which can help lower blood pressure. And they're high in fiber, which can lower the risk for heart disease. "They are definitely not a junk food or refined carbohydrate," says Graf. "They have a lot of health benefits."
Tomato consumption in the U.S. has been rising and that's a good thing. Like potatoes, tomatoes are high in heart-healthy potassium. Plus, they're a good source of the antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene is a carotenoid that may help lower levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, keep blood vessels open, and lower heart attack risk. And because they're low in calories and low in sugar, they don't detract from an already-healthy diet. "They're excellent for the body in a number of ways," says Graf.
This includes almonds, walnuts, pistachios, peanuts and macadamia nuts, all of which contain good-for-your-heart fiber. They also contain vitamin E, which helps lower bad cholesterol. And some, like walnuts, are high in a type of plant based omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, tied to anti-inflammation and improved circulation. "Some people in the past have avoided nuts because they're higher in fat, but most of the studies show that people who consume nuts daily are leaner than people who don't," says Graf. And leaner people are at a lower risk for heart problems. Look for varieties that don't have a lot of added salt.
Because they come from plants, legumes such as beans, lentils, and peas are an excellent source of protein without a lot of unhealthy fat. One study found that people who ate legumes at least four times a week had a 22% lower risk of heart disease compared with those who consumed them less than once a week. And legumes may help control blood sugar in people with diabetes. Lowering blood sugar levels is key in helping people avoid diabetes complications, one of which is heart disease.
Extra-virgin olive oil
In a landmark study, people at high risk for heart disease who followed the Mediterranean diet (high in grains, fruits, vegetables) supplemented by nuts and at least four tablespoons a day of olive oil reduced their risk of heart attacks, strokes, and dying by 30%. Olive oil is a good source of monounsaturated fat, which can help reduce both cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Olives themselves—both green and black—are another source of "good" fat, says Graf. And they "add a lot of flavor to salads," she notes.
Long a favorite in Asia, green tea has grown more popular in the West and may bring with it significant health benefits. A 2013 study found that people who drank four or more cups of green tea daily had a 20% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke compared with people who "seldom" imbibed the beverage. The findings echo a previous study that found lower rates of death, including death from heart disease, among avid drinkers of green tea. Antioxidants known as catechins may be responsible for the effect.
Broccoli, spinach and kale
When it comes to your health, you really can't go wrong with vegetables. But green vegetables may give an extra boost to your heart. These are high in carotenoids, which act as antioxidants and counter potentially harmful compounds in your body. They're also high in fiber and contain tons of vitamins and minerals. Kale also has some omega-3 fatty acids. "Green vegetables are super health-promoting foods," says Graf.
Another widely consumed beverage—coffee—may also promote heart health. One study found a 10 to 15% lower risk of dying from heart disease or other causes in men and women who drank six or more cups of coffee a day. Other research has found that even two cups a day could lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke by 30%. It's not clear where the benefit comes from and the news isn't necessarily a reason to pick up the habit. "If you're already drinking coffee and enjoying it, continue," says Graf. "If not, there's no reason to start."
One thing to note about caffeine, however: Due to a genetic variant some people break down caffeine more slowly. When this is the case, it can have a negative impact on heart health. While you can get tested, through sites like https://www.nutrigenomix.com, the test isn’t covered by insurance.
Flax seeds as well as the ultra-chic (among the health conscious) chia seeds are high in plant based omega-3 fatty acids, says Graf. That's one reason they're good for your heart. Another reason is their high fiber content. Plus, there are a million ways to enjoy them. Try them ground up with other heart-healthy foods, such as dried blueberries, cranberries, or oatmeal or even blended with plant milk and fruit to create a smoothie.
These soft, tasty fruits have a well-established reputation for providing the body and heart with healthy fats. Like olive oil, they're rich in monounsaturated fat, which may lower heart disease risk factors, such as cholesterol. They're also high in antioxidants and in potassium, says Graf. They can be eaten on their own or blended into guacamole, perhaps with some heart-promoting tomatoes.
Pomegranates contain numerous antioxidants, including heart-promoting polyphenols and anthocyanins which may help stave off hardening of the arteries. One study of heart disease patients found that a daily dose of pomegranate juice over three months showed improvements in blood flow to the heart. Ultimately, though, it's important to have variety in your diet. If you don't like pomegranates or can't afford them, reach for apples, which also contain plenty of health-promoting compounds, says Graf.
In addition to their proven ability to reduce total cholesterol, apples help protect their heart due to their prebiotic content. Prebiotics serve as “food” for beneficial bacteria housed in the gut, which are tied to cardiovascular protection.
In addition, a 2012 study of healthy, middle-aged adults found that a one apple a day habit reduced blood levels of a substance linked to hardening of the arteries by 40% over four weeks. Chop and add to oatmeal or overnight oats at breakfast, slice and add to a garden salad at lunch, dip an apple into almond butter as a snack, or dice and add to a stir fry at dinner.
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This plant butter, made from ground sesame seeds, contains five grams of plant protein and three grams of healthful fiber per two tablespoon portion. It also provides a variety of key nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, in addition to antioxidants. The phytosterols in tahini have also been shown to improve artery health, and lower blood cholesterol.
Tahini is a great alternative for those with nut allergies or sensitivities, and it makes a terrific base for creamy, dairy-free dressings and sauces.
Garlic and onions
Allium vegetables, which include garlic and onions, have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body, which in turn lowers the risk of artery hardening. The sulphur compounds in these veggies have also been shown to open up blood flow and improve circulation.
This may be why a 2017 study published in the Journal of Hypertension found that adult men and women with a higher habitual intake of allium vegetables had a 64% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease over a six year period.
Beetroot is one of the few vegetables that contain important bioactive pigments known as betalains, which provide their red-violet color. Betalains offer high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities known to protect a variety of systems in the body, including cardiovascular health. The natural nitrates found in beetroot help dilate blood vessels to decrease blood pressure, and may reduce the overstimulation of the nervous system that occurs with heart disease.
Fresh, peeled beets can be thinly sliced or shredded to add to salads, or blended into smoothies. Note: beeturia (red or pinkish urine and stools) may occur after upping your beet intake. It’s harmless, but important to be aware of so you won’t be startled if you notice this sudden change.
Chili peppers have been shown to help lower heart disease risk by improving cholesterol, lowering blood pressure and enhancing circulation, and combatting obesity. These spicy peppers also contain potent anti-inflammatory compounds, and are even linked to extending longevity.
Bonus: fresh or dried hot peppers are a smart way to flavor meals without the need to add salt or sugar. Sprinkle a chopped fresh or some dried chili pepper onto anything from black bean soup to hummus, potatoes, and sautéed veggies.