By Rachael Link, MS, RD
Your heart plays a crucial role in your health. It’s responsible for pumping blood throughout the body to supply your tissues with important nutrients and oxygen, and it works tirelessly 24/7 to keep you going. What you eat directly influences the health of your heart, and incorporating a few heart-healthy foods into your diet is key to providing it with the nutrients that it needs.
These foods can also reduce the risk of the dangerous heart conditions and heart diseases that affect millions worldwide. Combined with a healthy lifestyle and nutritious diet, getting in your fix of these heart-healthy foods is the best way to keep your heart strong and healthy to help stave off coronary heart disease risk factors.
Heart Disease by the Numbers
Almost all of us know someone who has been affected by heart disease at some point. Unfortunately, heart disease is incredibly prevalent around the world, and when you start to break it down by the numbers, it can be pretty alarming.
Here are some chilling statistics about heart disease in the United States, according to a report published by the American Heart Association: (1)
- By 2030, it’s estimated that 43 percent of the population will have some form of heart disease.
- On average, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds and someone dies of a stroke every four minutes.
- Heart disease accounts for 31.5 percent of all deaths worldwide.
- Between 2000 to 2012, the use of cholesterol-lowering treatments and statins among adults each increased by 10 percent.
- 11 percent of children and adolescents 8 to 17 years old have high or borderline high blood pressure.
- Stroke is the second leading cause of death behind ischemic heart disease.
- 85.7 million — or about 34 percent — of adults over age 20 have high blood pressure.
Top Heart-Healthy Foods + Benefits of Heart-Healthy Foods
- Whole Grains
- Leafy Green Vegetables
Rich in fiber and full of health benefits, oats are an excellent addition to a cardiac diet. They’re especially high in a type of fiber known as beta-glucan, a polysaccharide that’s found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi and cereals.
Oat beta-glucan has been associated with a long list of heart-healthy benefits. One 2011 analysis, for example, showed that oat consumption is associated with a 5 percent to 7 percent reduction in total and bad LDL cholesterol levels. (2) Meanwhile, another review published in the journal BMJ looked at the results of 22 studies and found that higher fiber intake was associated with a lower risk of both heart disease and coronary heart disease. (3)
For a few heart-healthy snacks, try adding oats to your high-fiber smoothies, mix them with almond milk to make overnight oatmeal or sprinkle them on top of your probiotic yogurt to add a delicious crunch.
Full of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, fatty varieties of fish like wild-caught salmon pack in a powerful punch when it comes to heart health. In fact, the American Heart Association even recommends getting in at least two servings of fish per week to keep your heart in tip-top shape. (4)
In addition to its omega-3 fatty acid content, salmon is also a great source of protein, loaded with selenium and rich in important B-vitamins, including vitamin B12 and niacin.
3. Whole Grains
Whole grains are any type of grain that contains the endosperm, germ and bran, resulting in a higher concentration of nutrients and fiber than grains that have been refined and heavily processed. This includes grains like whole wheat, barley and rye as well as gluten-free grains — such as amaranth, brown rice, millet, buckwheat, quinoa and sorghum.
These nutritious grains are generally high in important nutrients, such as fiber, B-vitamins, iron, magnesium and selenium. Some research has also found that whole grains could be beneficial for your heart. One massive review composed of 45 studies even concluded that eating more whole grains was associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. (8)
For best results, swap out your refined white bread and pasta for nutrient-rich options like quinoa or brown rice, and be sure to pair it with heart-healthy fats, plenty of veggies and protein to make it a delicious heart-healthy meal.
Well-known for their impressive nutrient profile and extensive health benefits, walnuts are one of the most powerful heart-healthy foods that you can incorporate into your diet.
According to one study published in the Journal of Nutrition, walnuts have been shown to reduce bad LDL cholesterol by up to 16 percent and also drop blood pressure. They may also help improve blood vessel function, decrease certain markers of inflammation and reduce oxidative stress. (9)
Plus, walnuts pack in quite a bit of manganese, dietary fiber and copper, as well as plenty of heart-healthy fats. However, keep in mind that walnuts also contain a concentrated amount of calories. Measure out your portions and moderate your intake to keep your waistline in check.
5. Leafy Green Vegetables
Greens like spinach, kale, collard greens and chard are powerhouses of nutrition. They’re nutrient-dense foods, meaning that they are low in calories but supply tons of vitamins and minerals, like vitamin K, vitamin A, folate, magnesium, potassium and iron. They’re also high in beneficial antioxidants that can help fight free radicals, prevent cell damage and slow the development of chronic disease.
Getting in your daily dose of greens can have big benefits in terms of heart health. A 2016 review out of Texas, for instance, compiled the results of eight studies and found that a high intake of leafy green and cruciferous vegetables was associated with a nearly 16 percent reduction in the risk of heart disease. (11)
With their creamy texture and light taste, avocados are a popular favorite in everything from guacamole to omelettes. In fact, the avocado is an excellent source of heart-healthy fats, plus other important nutrients like potassium, vitamin E and vitamin K.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that including one avocado per day as part of a moderate-fat diet could help lower cholesterol levels, potentially reducing the risk of heart disease. (15) Another animal study found that supplementing with avocado oil decreased levels of triglycerides and cholesterol, plus helped reduce inflammation as well. (16)
Blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are brimming with heart-healthy antioxidants that help fight off free radicals and prevent disease. Research even shows that eating more berries could help protect against metabolic syndrome, inflammation and neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s. (17, 18, 19)
Berries may also have a significant impact on heart health. A 2016 review compiled the results of 22 studies with 1,251 participants and found that higher berry consumption led to reductions in bad LDL cholesterol levels, blood pressure, body weight and inflammation. (20)
Plus, berries also contain several nutrients that are essential to a healthy heart, including fiber, vitamin C and vitamin K. Enjoy them as is for a nutritious way to satisfy your sweet tooth, or try mixing them into smoothies, oats or probiotic yogurt.
Worst Foods for Your Heart
- Refined Carbohydrates
- Processed Meats
- Salty Snacks
1. Refined Carbohydrates
During processing, refined grains are stripped of the bran and germ, two parts of the grain kernel that contain a wealth of nutrients. The final product is a starch with next to no nutritional value, providing little more than carbohydrates and calories.
Refined carbohydrates can be found in a wide variety of foods, including white bread, pasta and rice, muffins, cakes, cookies, crackers, and bagels. Unfortunately, these foods make up a pretty good chunk of the modern Western diet and may be linked to a higher risk of heart disease.
One study out of China, for example, found that a higher carbohydrate intake, mainly from refined grains, was associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease among 117,366 adults. (21)
Ditching the soda is one of the best things that you can do for your heart. Besides being laden with controversial chemicals and unhealthy ingredients, soda is also brimming with added sugars.
Sugar is one of the main culprits of heart disease. Added sugars from foods like candy, desserts, juice and soda can spike blood sugar levels, damaging the blood vessels, overloading the liver and amping up the risk of heart disease.
Interestingly, a study from Harvard School of Public Health actually found that participants who drank the highest amount of sugar-sweetened beverages had a 20 percent higher relative risk of developing coronary heart disease than those who drank the lowest amount. Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption was also associated with higher triglycerides and markers of inflammation, plus lower levels of good HDL cholesterol. (22)
Margarine is usually high in trans fats, a type of fat often used by food manufacturers to enhance the flavor of foods and lengthen shelf life — at the cost of your health.
Ideally, trans fats should be cut out of your diet altogether. One study actually found that the risk of coronary heart disease doubled with each 2 percent increase in calories from trans fats. (23) Another researcher even concluded: “On a per-calorie basis, trans fats appear to increase the risk of CHD more than any other micronutrient.” (24)
Opt for grass-fed organic butter or ghee instead of margarine, and limit other sources of trans fats as well, including store-bought cakes, cookies, donuts and biscuits.
4. Processed Meats
In recent years, there have been numerous studies connecting processed meats like hot dogs and lunch meat to a slew of adverse effects on health. Not surprisingly, processed meats can also negatively affect heart health.
Processed meats are pumped full of additives and preservatives that can be harmful to health. They also contain potentially dangerous chemical compounds like heterocyclic amines and nitrites, which have been linked to conditions like cancer. (25) They also tend to be high in sodium, which may impact blood pressure in those who are salt-sensitive. (26)
5. Salty Snacks
Salty snacks like potato chips, pretzels and microwave popcorn are chock-full of added ingredients that can take a serious toll on the health of your heart. They’re also loaded with sodium, which may increase blood pressure, placing extra strain on the heart and causing it to weaken.
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams per day. (28) For those with hypertension, cutting back on salt intake by eliminating foods like salty snacks from the diet can lead to significant reductions in blood pressure. (29)
How to Follow a Heart-Healthy Diet
Following a heart-healthy diet doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. Armed with the above list of healthy foods, you can easily preplan some healthy meals to fit in all of the nutrients that you need.
In addition to incorporating plenty of heart-healthy foods into your diet, it’s important to take a look at the rest of your diet as well. The majority of your diet should consist of unprocessed, whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, meats and whole grains. When you’re grocery shopping, stick to the outer sections of the store and avoid wandering into the middle where the heavily processed junk foods lurk.
Be sure to also opt for healthy fats when you’re cooking or baking. Skip the vegetable oils, margarine and shortening, and choose nutrient-rich coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, butter or ghee instead.
For those with high blood pressure, limiting your sodium intake is also critical. Steer clear of fast food, frozen meals and convenience foods, all of which can be hidden sources of sodium.
If this all seems overwhelming, no worries. Start by making one small change each week, and you’ll work your way up to a healthy, well-rounded diet in no time!
Heart Disease Risk Factors and Causes
There are many factors that can increase your risk of having heart problems. Here are a few of the main risk factors for heart disease: (30)
- Being overweight or obese
- Physical inactivity
- Family history of heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- History of preeclampsia during pregnancy
- Being older (over 55 for women)
- Having an unhealthy diet
Other Tips for Protecting the Heart
Filling your plate with heart-healthy foods can definitely make a big impact on your risk of heart disease, but it’s not the only factor that should be considered. In fact, even just making a few minor adjustments in your daily routine can have a huge effect on the health of your heart. Here are a few tips for improving your heart health even more:
- Try out some natural stress relievers like meditation or aromatherapy to minimize your stress levels.
- Aim to get in at least 30 minutes of exercise five days per week by walking, biking or hitting the gym.
- Set a regular sleep schedule, and try to squeeze in at least seven hours per night.
- Quit smoking.
- Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
- Practice yoga to relieve stress and increase your physical activity.
- If you’re overweight, work on losing excess pounds to cut your risk of heart disease.
- Focus on getting blood sugar under control if you have diabetes by monitoring your diet and adhering to your medications.
Although these foods may be associated with some impressive health benefits, chowing down on a few walnuts per day won’t make much of a difference if the rest of your diet is filled with ultra-processed foods.
Use these heart-healthy foods to round out a nutritious diet filled with fruits, vegetables, proteins, whole grains and healthy fats. Additionally, make sure to combine them with an active lifestyle, minimal stress levels and adequate sleep.
If you do have heart problems, be sure to talk to your doctor and pair these heart-healthy foods with your treatment plan to maximize your results and see the most benefit to your health.
Final Thoughts on Hearth-Healthy Foods
- Heart disease is a massive problem around the world and accounts for nearly one-third of all deaths worldwide.
- Diet is one of the biggest factors that can help decrease your risk of heart disease and keep your heart healthy and strong, including consuming a heart-healthy diet full of heart-healthy foods.
- There are plenty of heart-healthy foods that are rich in important nutrients and have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease. The top seven heart-healthy foods include oats, salmon, whole grains, walnuts, leafy green vegetables, avocado and berries.
- In addition to following a heart-healthy diet, getting in plenty of exercise, reducing stress levels and practicing healthy habits can also help optimize heart health.
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