While deaths due to heart disease have dropped in recent years, it’s still the number one killer of both men and women in the USA. The good news is that we now know a ton about how to prevent cardiovascular disease, which includes both strokes and heart attacks.
It’s clear that healthy eating and living (like exercising more!) can make a huge difference.
You can definitely reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease by eating certain heart healthy foods every day. There is a great variety of fruits and vegetables that are good for your heart.
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. Consuming two or more servings of fish per week is associated with a 30 percent lower risk of developing coronary heart disease over the long term, studies show. No common fish delivers more of the omega-3 fatty acids than salmon. Flaxseed oil, canola oil and walnuts also contain omega-3 fats.
It’s totally worth the vampire-repelling breath! Not only does garlic add a kick of flavor to any dish, but it also reduces cholesterol and blood pressure and improves blood flow. You might want to stick to fresh garlic to reap the most benefits, though. While both fresh and processed garlic help with promoting healthy blood flow in the heart, research suggests that fresh, crushed garlic is more effective (though it’s worth noting that it was a study done in mice).
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. Other whole grains such as bread, pasta and grits are also good for the heart as long as they still contain the entire grain.
Research shows yogurt may protect against gum disease. Left unchecked, gum disease may elevate a person’s risk for heart disease. Researchers from Japan analyzed dietary intakes from nearly 1,000 adults and found those who consumed the highest levels of dairy—specifically yogurt and yogurt-type drinks—had the healthiest gums. Their report, published in the Journal of Periodontology, credits probiotics (a.k.a. “good bacteria”) as one possible champion of gum health. Experts believe that probiotics may help to counter growth of the “unfriendly” bacteria in the mouth. Probiotics are live active cultures used to ferment foods, such as yogurt and kefir (fermented milk), and studies suggest that they may improve digestion and boost immunity too. As for gum health, it’s not yet clear how much yogurt (or other fermented dairy foods) one needs to consume to reap the benefits, says Yoshihiro Shimazaki, D.D.S., Ph.D., of Kyushu University, the study’s lead author.
Not just blueberries, but strawberries and other berries are heart healthy foods. According to one recent 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.
6. Dark chocolate
Several studies have now shown that eating moderate amounts of flavanol-rich dark chocolate may benefit your heart, including one in 2012 that 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. It appears that a compound in cocoa, called epicatechin, boosts nitric oxide, a substance that has been shown to be crucial to healthy blood vessels. Plentiful levels of nitric oxide help keep blood pressure from climbing. Be sure to choose dark chocolate, ideally one that’s 70 percent cocoa solids; milk chocolate lacks significant levels of epicatechin.Unfortunately, milk chocolate and most candy bars don’t make the grade when it comes to protecting your heart. Some research also suggests cocoa may help lower blood pressure.
Asparagus is one of the heart healthy foods. This superfood contains vitamin K, which can help with blood clotting, and potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure. It also boasts two nutrients that help lower blood cholesterol: soluble fiber and saponins (nutrients that stop the digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol as easily).
8. Citrus fruits
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 recent study found. Citrus fruits are also high in vitamin C, which has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease. Beware of citrus juices that contain added sugar. And be aware that grapefruit products may interfere with the action of the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins.
Soy products, including tofu and soy milk, are a good way to add protein to your diet without unhealthy fats and cholesterol. Soy products contain high levels of polyunsaturated fats (good for your health), fiber, vitamins, and minerals. What’s more, soy may reduce blood pressure in people who eat a diet high in refined carbohydrates. And compared with milk or other proteins, soy protein can actually decrease LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
10. 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 fats, which can help reduce both cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Olives themselves—both green and black—are another source of “good” fat.
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. They have a lot of health benefits.
An excellent source of vitamin C, plus vitamin A, potassium and fiber, tomatoes are high in lycopene, which works with other vitamins and minerals to aid in disease prevention. Research suggests that the combination of nutrients in tomatoes may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Cooking may actually increase the health benefits of this lush fruit because although cooked tomatoes have less vitamin C, their lycopene is more available and antioxidant activity is undiminished by cooking.
Nuts are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and low levels of saturated fats. They also contain vitamin E, which helps lower bad cholesterol. And some, like walnuts, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. 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. And leaner people are at a lower risk for heart problems. Look for varieties that don’t have a lot of added salt. Research suggests that people who eat nuts—walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, pine nuts and peanuts (which actually are legumes)—two to four days or more per week have a lower incidence of heart disease than people who eat them less often.
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.
15. Red Wine
Red wine, or small amounts of any type of alcohol, are thought to lower heart disease risk. Higher amounts, more than a drink or two a day, can actually increase risk. While some say a polyphenol found in red wine, resveratrol, gives that beverage an added benefit, research suggests that any type of alcohol in moderation works. As with coffee, though, none of these properties are a reason to start drinking alcohol. You can also get resveratrol from non-alcohol sources, like natural peanut butter and grapes.
16. Green Tea
Long a favorite in Asia, green tea has grown more popular in the West and may bring with it significant health benefits. One recent 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.
Some of the strongest evidence of tea’s health benefits comes from studies of heart disease. Scientists have found that those who drink 12 ounces or more of tea a day are about half as likely to have a heart attack as non-tea drinkers.
Scientists also reported in 2009 that Japanese men who drank a daily cup of green tea significantly lowered their risk of developing gum disease—the more tea, the lower the risk. The researchers believe antioxidants called catechins in green tea are the key. Catechins hamper the body’s inflammatory response to the bacteria that cause gum disease. People with gum disease are twice as likely to suffer from heart problems.
Apples were associated with a lower risk of death from both coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease in the Iowa Women’s Health Study, which has been tracking 34,000-plus women for nearly 20 years. Finnish researchers studying dietary data collected over 28 years from 9,208 men and women found that frequent apple eaters had the lowest risk of suffering strokes compared with non-apple eaters. What explains the hearty benefits? Researchers suggest that the strong antioxidant flavonoid compounds found in apples—quercetin, epicatechin, epigallocatechin, kaempferol and other polysyllabic wonders—play a key role by preventing “bad” LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and triggering a series of events that result in the buildup of plaque in arteries, as well as inhibiting inflammation. Apples are also rich in pectin, a form of soluble fiber known to help lower cholesterol, and they provide a decent amount of vitamin C, another antioxidant.
18. Broccoli, Spinach and Kale
When it comes to your health, you really can’t go wrong with vegetables; broccoli, spinach and kale are heart healthy foods. But green vegetables may give an extra boost to your heart. These are high in carotenoids, which act as antioxidants and free your body of potentially harmful compounds. 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.
Another widely consumed beverage –coffee– may also promote heart health. One study found a 10-15% 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. If not, there’s no reason to start.
Flaxseeds as well as the ultra-chic (among the health conscious) chia seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids. That’s one reason they’re both heart healthy foods. 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 soy 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 the monounsaturated fats that may lower heart disease risk factors, such as cholesterol. They’re also high in antioxidants and in potassium. They can be eaten on their own or blended into guacamole, perhaps with some heart-promoting tomatoes.
Pomegranates contains 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.
Research has shown that antioxidants in raisins fight the growth of a type of bacteria that can cause inflammation and gum disease. People with gum disease —which affects up to 50 percent of American adults— are twice as likely to suffer from heart problems. So, dealing with one can help people avoid the other. Last summer, a major heart journal and a major periodontal journal simultaneously published a consensus paper that outlines the link between the two diseases: inflammation. As a result, choosing certain foods, such as raisins, may help you protect both your gums and your heart.
24. Whole Grains
People who eat plenty of whole grains tend to be leaner and have a lower risk of heart disease than those who don’t. This is probably because whole grains contain antioxidants, phytoestrogens and phytosterols that are protective against coronary disease.
Aim to include plenty of foods that are rich in soluble fiber, which, studies show, can help lower “bad” LDL. Soluble fiber binds bile acid, a key component in fat digestion that our bodies make from cholesterol. We can’t digest fiber, so when bile acids are bound to it, they get ushered out of the body as waste. This causes the body to convert more cholesterol into bile acids, which ultimately has the effect of lowering circulating cholesterol levels. Foods high in soluble fiber include oatmeal, barley, beans, okra and eggplant, and citrus fruit, such as oranges.
Eating beans regularly is good for your heart, and you don’t need to eat a lot of them to benefit. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition suggests having just 1⁄2 cup of cooked pinto beans daily might lower cholesterol. Soluble fiber is a key reason why, says Philip Ades, M.D., author of the Eating Well for a Healthy Heart Cookbook. “Like all foods that contain a lot of soluble fiber, beans help bind cholesterol and keep it from being absorbed in the gut,” he explains. And, as the fiber is fermented, it produces changes in short-chain fatty acids that can inhibit cholesterol formation. (By-products of this same fermentation process are what cause the gas so often associated with eating beans). Other components in beans also may be responsible for the cholesterol-lowering effect. Beans contain a variety of heart-protective chemicals, including flavonoids, compounds also found in wine, berries and chocolate that inhibit the adhesion of platelets in the blood, which can help lower risk for heart attack and strokes.
These spiny little creatures are also loaded with omega-3s in the form of fish oil, which increases “good” cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of sudden heart attacks in people who have experienced previous attacks, according to the Mayo Clinic. Stick to fresh ones to avoid the canned variety’s high salt content.
One banana has 422 mg –about 12 percent of your recommended daily dose– of potassium. The potassium in bananas helps maintain normal heart function and the balance of sodium and water in the body. Potassium helps the kidneys excrete excess sodium, thereby contributing to healthy blood pressure. This mineral is especially important for people taking diuretics for heart disease, which combat sodium and water retention but also strip potassium from the body in the process. Other good sources include sweet potatoes (694 mg for one medium), nonfat yogurt (579 mg for 1 cup) and spinach (419 mg for 1/2 cup, cooked).
Liver contains fats that are good for the heart, says William Davis, MD, a Wisconsin-based preventive cardiologist and author of Wheat Belly. “That’s the way humans are scripted,” he says. “Primitive humans ate the entire animal. Livers contain a lot of fats and that’s healthy.”
29. Chia Seeds
Just a spoonful of this plant-based omega-3 powerhouse contains only 60 calories and helps reduce bad cholesterol and plaque buildup. Mix them with yogurt, soup, or sprinkle on a salad.
It’s not green, but it is bursting with antioxidants, is high in fiber, and contains allicin, a component of garlic shown to help lower the risk of heart attacks and reduce cholesterol.