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16 Foods To Protect Your Heart Immediately!

Heart disease is the leading cause of death, in men and women alike, in the United States.1 For the young folks who are about to click away from this article because you think heart disease is only something older individuals have to worry about, think again. The World Health Organization estimates that about 80% of coronary heart disease cases may be avoided with lifestyle improvements such as eating a healthier diet, increasing physical activity and smoking cessation.2 Guess what? The time to begin taking care of your heart is right now, no matter your age! A heart healthy lifestyle is something to strive for throughout your life. You should think of preventative care and lifestyle intervention as saving your life in slow motion, and this is certainly the case when it comes to eating a heart healthy diet.


16 Foods To Incorporate Into A Heart Healthy Diet

The American Heart Association recommends following a diet that consists mainly of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry and fish (skinless), nuts, legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils. These are some easy rules to live by—or maybe “rules to eat by”—but let’s highlight some foods that are truly shining stars when it comes to heart healthy eating. Try to incorporate these foods often to make your heart go pitter patter.

The best diet for preventing heart disease is one that is full of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, poultry, and vegetable oils; includes alcohol in moderation, if at all; and goes easy on red and processed meats, refined carbohydrates, foods and beverages with added sugar, sodium, and foods with trans fat.


1. Dark Chocolate

Let’s start off with a truly delicious food that is a functional indulgence. Dark chocolate is a great way to add flavonoids (a special type of polyphenol) to your diet. Observational studies have shown dark chocolate consumption may be inversely related to heart disease prevalence.34

Several intervention studies have shown short-term additions of dark chocolate to the diet can be beneficial to blood pressure,56 blood vessel function,78910 and blood clotting.11 Remember not to overdo it on the dark chocolate, as it usually comes along with added sugar and fat, so make this an occasional treat that you consume in small quantities! Target a chocolate that contains 70% cocoa to get the most health benefits.


2. Sparkling Water

Sparkling water may seem like a surprising addition to a list of heart healthy foods, but hear me out. More research on heart health shows that sodium and trans fats are not the only nutrients you should try and limit for heart health. Excess sugar intake and poor blood glucose control are related to risk of heart disease.12 Ditch sugary sodas and get your bubbly refreshment from sparkling water with a squeeze of fresh fruit juice.


3. Salmon

As a source of omega-3 fatty acids, frequent consumption of salmon (and other fatty fish) is linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.131415 You should aim to include fatty fish in your diet 2-3 times per week for optimal benefits.

Don’t forget to check out omega-3 supplements if you’re not getting 2-3 servings of fatty fish per week.


4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO for short) is literally the juice of the olive fruit. Health benefits of EVOO come from both the polyphenols and monounsaturated fat. Olive Oil and Pure Olive Oil do not contain these same beneficial nutrients, they are simply monounsaturated fat without any additional bioactives. When used to replace other types of vegetable oils, EVOO can reduce blood pressure (in people with high normal and elevated blood pressure),161718 oxidized LDL (one of the more dangerous kind of cholesterol),1920 and improve blood vessel function.2122

You need 2-3 tablespoons per day to achieve maximal benefits, so use EVOO generously in cooking and as a drizzle on your food. Cooking with EVOO can even help to conserve and increase the polyphenol content of the vegetables that you cook in them.23


5. Nuts

Nuts are packed with protein, fiber and healthy fats, making them a winning snack choice to help you feel satisfied. A study of normal-weight individuals who substituted almonds for a carb-rich snack found that the people who ate the almond snack had improvements in HDL (good cholesterol)!24 Cashews have also been shown to improve lipid profile by reducing total and LDL cholesterol when consumed in amounts ranging from 28-64g per day.25


6. Berries

Berries of all kinds are some of the most nutritious fruits you can find. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are all jam-packed with fiber, micronutrients and polyphenols. The combination of all these nutrients make them a great heart healthy food.

A short-term study where obese subjects with metabolic syndrome ate the equivalent of 3 cups of fresh strawberries per day found that the strawberry consumption group had reductions in total and LDL cholesterol, among other markers of heart health. This was without even changing anything else about their diets!26

Blueberries, a serious contender in the fight for berry supremacy, have also been linked to heart health benefits in people with metabolic syndrome. The study subjects were given smoothies with and without the addition of freeze-dried blueberry powder (which was high in antioxidants) for 6 weeks. The blueberry group saw improvements in their blood vessel function. Their blood pressure was not improved, but the improvement in blood vessel function is promising for a food-only intervention!27


7. Fresh Herbs and Spices

Most people already know that reducing sodium intake is a typical recommendation for a heart healthy diet. But, if you are used to lots of salt in your food, this can be a challenging change to implement. Use fresh herbs and spices, which also happen to be loaded with phytonutrients, to add freshness and flavor to your dishes. Anecdotal evidence says that it takes about two weeks for your body’s craving for salt to begin to subside, so if you can make it for two weeks, keeping your salt intake at a healthier level should begin to get easier!


8. Beets

The first clue that beets are bursting with nutrients is their deep rich purple color. This root vegetable is filled with bioactive compounds called betalains as well as nitrate.2829 Dietary nitrate is converted to nitric oxide, which has vasodilatory action, meaning that nitric oxide causes blood vessels to relax. The relaxation of blood vessels can lead to reduction in blood pressure and the oxygen cost of exercise.282930 Plus, betalains are also antioxidants. Beets truly are a super food that should be on your plate multiple times per week. Roasted, in salads, soups or just on their own–just get ready for purple fingers!!


9. Sweet Potatoes

Staying in the family of brightly colored vegetables, sweet potatoes bring with them a long list of heart healthy components. They contain lots of potassium, which helps to maintain healthy blood pressure3132 by allowing your body to excrete more sodium through urine. Plus, sweet potatoes are packed with antioxidant phytonutrients especially carotenoids, which can help to protect your cells from the damaging effects of free radicals.3334 Finally, sweet potatoes boast a good deal of fiber, and we know that high fiber intake is associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. Forget about the sugar-laden sweet potato casserole and roast some cubed sweet potatoes with some EVOO, garlic and chili powder. You’ll never go back to the sugar rush version of sweet potatoes again.


10. Soy

Tofu, edamame, soy milk, and miso paste are delicious foods that can help you to incorporate more soy into your diet. The versatile soy bean also happens to be rich in fiber, saponins, lecithins, isoflavones and genistein, which are molecules that help to promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol through various mechanisms.3435 There is more research to be done to understand exactly which parts of soy foods are most beneficial for heart health, but in the meantime, soy foods are a great way to add umami flavor, fiber, protein and heart health benefits to your diet.36 Miso soup anyone?


11. Red Wine

Like many of the other foods on this list, wine is brimming with bioactive compounds that researchers believe are responsible for wines’ reputation as a heart healthy food (well, drink if you want to get technical about it). In fact, over 500 compounds have been identified in wine. Aside from the water and ethanol, polyphenolic compounds are the third most prominent group of compounds in wine.37 The phenolic compounds are believed to exert anti-clotting, and antioxidant effects in the body.38 They also appear to help with healthy blood vessel function. All these effects can help to reduce your risk of heart disease.

Before you start having red wine with breakfast, remember that there is a HUGE caveat to the research which says that the effects are seen with light to moderate consumption (around 1-2 glasses per day, maximum). As with so many healthy habits, when we take them too far, things can really start to go sideways, so drink up, but in a light to moderate fashion!


12. Garlic

As one of the world’s most ancient medicinal foods, garlic is believed to contain compounds that can benefit heart health through multiple mechanisms, especially through the sulfur-containing ones that give garlic its characteristic aroma.3940 Various preparations of garlic have been shown to promote improvements to blood pressure and cholesterol, both significant markers used to assess heart health.41 As with many studies based on the benefits of food for health, the results in interventional clinical trials using garlic often provide inconsistent results. What we do know, however, is that epidemiologic research has shown an inverse relationship between garlic consumption and the progression of cardiovascular disease,40 so it certainly can’t hurt to try to use some extra garlic in your daily meals to capture some of the benefits and flavor that garlic has to offer. The key is to make sure that everyone that you live with eats the garlic…that way you won’t offend anyone (garlic-lover’s pro tip).


13. Tomatoes

As a perfect accompaniment to garlic, tomatoes seemed like the logical food to talk about next. These juicy fruits are nutritional powerhouses when it comes to vitamins, minerals and fiber. They are also packed with phytonutrients like lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin and quercetin.42 All of these antioxidant nutrients combine to allow tomatoes to provide heart health benefits like healthier cholesterol, healthier blood vessel function, and improvements to platelet function (which can contribute to blood clot formation). Whether you prefer your tomatoes in salads, soups or sauces, keep eating those beauties to keep your heart and blood vessels looking beautiful, too.


14. Green Tea

Commonly consumed in Asian countries for centuries, green tea is gaining popularity worldwide, and I suspect part of this rise in popularity must have to do with the health benefits of this tasty brewed beverage. Large, population based studies have pretty consistently found that drinking 1-3 cups of green tea per day is associated with reduced risk of various cardiovascular maladies like high blood pressure and cholesterol.43 Green tea has also been shown to have benefits for metabolic health like reduced body mass index (a way to assess body fat by comparing weight to height) and improved glycemic control.43 These metabolic health benefits are tied quite closely to heart health, so that’s just one more reason why you might consider drinking a cup or two of green tea going forward. Remember that green tea contains caffeine, but you can still expect to reap the benefits from the decaf version, too!


15. Bananas

First, I’d like to thank Gwen Stefani for helping me to remember how to spell the name of this nutritious and heart healthy fruit. But in all seriousness, the humble banana has gotten lost in the shuffle of the world’s obsession with never before heard of “superfoods.” Being rare and exotic should not be a requirement for achieving superfood status. Not to mention that being rare and exotic can make said superfoods difficult for us to get our hands on.

Bananas are rich in potassium, a hugely important heart health nutrient that Americans are not getting enough of. Adult males need about 3400mg per day and adult females need about 2600mg per day,44 but we tend to fall short of these amounts. The U.S. government identified potassium as a nutrient of public health concern because getting enough potassium can actually help to offset the detrimental effects of over-consuming sodium for heart health (which we also have a problem within the U.S.)!45

One banana contains about 10% of the total amount of potassium you should be eating every day, making it an easy way to up your intake of the important nutrient. Plus, they are a great smoothie base, they’ll last for a good while on your counter or freezer, and you can find them pretty much anywhere. I’d say all of that makes bananas super after all.


16. Condi-meats

Hear me out on this one! If you search for the word “condi-meat,” you will read about people using meats (like bacon) as a condiment on top of another meat-based dish (like a burger). This is NOT what I am advocating for!

Meat has become the center of the plate in many western diets, but if we start to focus our meals more on plant foods, using a small amount of meat only as a way to add some flavor, texture, and a bit of protein; our hearts would be better for it! The Mediterranean diet is a great example of an eating pattern focused on plants and uses lean meats in a more sparing fashion. People of the Mediterranean region who have followed this type of traditional diet are known to have exceptional longevity and low rates of cardiovascular disease.46 Meat can still be part of a heart-friendly diet, but perhaps consider shifting to a less is more approach when it comes to eating meat.


Make Good Choices Most Of The Time

Eating for heart health is a combination of eating more of the “good stuff,” and less of the “not so good stuff”. It does not have to be complicated, but you do have to make good choices most of the time to protect your heart from the assaults of an unhealthy diet. Adding these foods to a balanced diet is an easy way to support heart health.

A balanced, heart healthy diet minimizes sodium and processed food intake and focuses on fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins. Small changes will add up over time to yield healthier blood pressure, cholesterol, and protection from damaging free radicals in your body. It is never too late to start working toward a heart healthy diet that will help to keep your ticker ticking!

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