The Best Heart-Healthy Foods to Add to Your Plate
"Instead of using a whopping dollop of mayonnaise on your sandwich, try using thin slices of avocado," suggests Megan Madden, a registered dietitian in New York, NY. A 1996 study done by researchers in Mexico found that people who ate avocado every day for one week experienced an average 17 percent drop in total blood cholesterol. What's more, their levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol decreased and HDL ("good") cholesterol increased. (BTW, the heart-healthy food can do some good for the rest of your body too.)
The soluble fiber found in whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal, binds the cholesterol in your meal and drags it out of your body, says Madden. "And when your body needs to utilize cholesterol in the future, it draws on your blood cholesterol supply, effectively lowering your total blood cholesterol level and your risk for heart disease," she explains. Oatmeal isn’t just for breakfast, either; you can enjoy the heart-healthy food any time of day with these high-protein oatmeal recipes.
A 2011 study found that people ages 65 or older who regularly used olive oil (for both cooking and as a dressing) were 41 percent less likely to have a stroke compared to those who never use olive oil in their diet. Use this heart-healthy food instead of butter or drizzle some over pasta, salad, or veggies to take advantage of its high mono- and polyunsaturated fats, says Madden. "And although it’s a healthier option, remember to use these oils sparingly, as all fats still contain the same number of calories," she adds.
Grabbing a handful of nuts is a heart-healthy way to beat the afternoon itch for a cookie, says Madden. "Almonds are very high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, and fiber, while walnuts are a great plant-based source of an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid." According to the American Heart Association, monounsaturated fats can help reduce levels of bad cholesterol in your blood and lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Foods Fortified with Plant Sterols
Sterols are compounds that compete with the cholesterol in your food for absorption within your digestive tract, says Madden. "Sterols have been shown to lower both total and LDL cholesterol and can be found in certain brands of fortified orange juice, margarine spreads, and milk," she explains. Just be sure to check the label — make sure the margarine is trans fat-free and that "partially hydrogenated oil" doesn't appear on the ingredient list. (Related: 15 Incredibly Delicious Foods That Lower Cholesterol)
Salmon (or Other Fatty Fish)
Fatty fish such as mackerel, herring, tuna, and salmon are chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids, says Madden. "Eating fish twice a week can reduce your risk of developing heart disease by decreasing inflammation and lowering triglyceride levels, and it may even help boost your HDL levels," she adds. Try these recipes to enjoy the heart-healthy food in less than 15 minutes.
Asparagus is one of the best, natural artery-clearing foods around, says Shane Ellison, an organic chemist and author of Over-The-Counter Natural Cures. "Asparagus works within the 100,000 miles of veins and arteries to release pressure, thereby allowing the body to accommodate for inflammation that has accumulated over the years," he says. The heart-healthy food also helps ward off deadly blood clots, he adds.
This heart-healthy food contains phytochemicals that act as antioxidants to protect the lining of the arteries from damage, explains Gregg Schneider, D.D.S., a nutritionally oriented dentist and expert on alternative medicine. A 2005 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice stimulated the body’s production of nitric oxide, which helps keep blood flowing and arteries open.
This heart-healthy food is rich in vitamin K, which is needed for bone formation and helps to keep calcium from damaging the arteries, says Schneider. Not to mention, broccoli is full of fiber, and studies show a high-fiber diet can also help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. (Wait, what's the deal with broccoli sprouts?)
"The spice turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory," says Schneider. "It contains curcumin which lowers inflammation — a major cause of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries." A 2009 study found that curcumin helps reduce the fatty deposits in arteries by as much as 26 percent. Add the heart-healthy food to your diet with these meal hacks.
Forget the old 'an apple a day' adage — it seems eating a daily persimmon is a better way to keep the doctor away. Research shows the polyphenols found in this fruit (which has twice as much fiber and more antioxidants than an apple) can help decrease levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
A 2011 study published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking two daily cups of 100-percent orange juice can help reduce diastolic (resting) blood pressure. The heart-healthy drink contains an antioxidant that has been found to help improve blood vessel function. (Related: What's Healthier, Oranges or Orange Juice?)
A daily 4,500mg dose of this Spirulina, a blue-green algae usually found in supplement or powder form, can help relax artery walls and normalize blood pressure. Plus, the heart-healthy food may also help your liver balance your blood fat levels — decreasing your LDL cholesterol by 10 percent and raising HDL cholesterol by 15 percent, according a 2011 study.
Just one teaspoon a day of antioxidant-rich cinnamon can help reduce fats in the bloodstream, helping to prevent plaque build up in the arteries and lower bad cholesterol levels by as much as 26 percent, according to a 2003 study. To get the perks of this heart-healthy food, try one of these warming recipes.
Research shows that potassium-rich cranberries can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels and help raise the good HDL levels in your body. One study found that drinking three 8-ounce cups of cranberry juice daily increased HDL cholesterol by 10 percent, equating to a 40 percent reduction in overall risk of heart disease.
According to researchers in the Netherlands, people who drank more than two, but no more than four, cups of coffee a day for 13 years had about a 20 percent lower risk of heart disease than people who drank more or less coffee or no coffee at all. Moderation is the key to coffee's heart-health benefits — the caffeine is a stimulant which can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure, and in excess, can lead to irregular heart beat.
Believe it or not, cheese could help lower your blood pressure. A 2006 study from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that people who eat three servings a day of low-fat dairy have lower (three points less) systolic blood pressure than those who eat less. (Related: The Healthiest Cheese On the Planet, According to Dietitians)
Pour yourself a cup of this heart-healthy brew at least three times a week. Tea may help maintain your levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol, the type that can mop up unhealthy cholesterol and carry it out of your bloodstream, according to a Penn State University study of over 80,000 people. “The polyphenols in tea could be one potential component accounting for its benefit,” says study author Xiang Gao, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the university’s nutritional epidemiology lab. They may act as antioxidants and inhibit the absorption of lipids, or unhealthy fats, he says.
When you sip, choose green tea, which has higher levels of antioxidants than the black type does and offers more heart-healthy benefits, the study found.
Talk about a perfect snack — watermelon is not only a super-hydrating food, but also a heart-healthy food. A Florida State University study found that people given a 4,000mg supplement of L-citrulline (an amino acid found in watermelon) lowered their blood pressure in just six weeks. Researchers say the amino acid helps your body produce nitric oxide, which widens blood vessels.
Yogurt and Kefir
Fermented dairy isn't only good for your gut. Participants in a Finnish study who consumed about two servings daily of foods like low-fat yogurt and kefir had a 26 percent lower risk of developing coronary heart disease over the next 20 years than those who ate the least. (The study was done in men, but the researchers say the findings could apply to women as well.)
“It’s not known why fermented dairy had this effect,” says study author Jyrki Virtanen, Ph.D., of the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Eastern Finland. “But the fermentation process does add probiotics and vitamin K2.” Previous research has linked probiotics with lower blood pressure and cholesterol and vitamin K2 with decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases. For the best results from the heart-healthy foods, opt for lower-fat yogurt or kefir with no or low amounts of added sugar, says Virtanen.
Choosing a veggie-rich diet is one of the best things you can do for your heart health. And green vegetables (including leafy types like spinach and lettuce) and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and Brussels sprouts) may be extra protective against a number of cardiovascular diseases, a review in the journal Nutrients reports. Greens are a good source of magnesium, which helps control blood pressure; vitamin K, which has been linked to keeping the arteries flexible; and fiber, which may help decrease cholesterol levels, says Keri Gans, R.D.N., a nutritionist in New York and a Shape Brain Trust member.
Eat three to five servings of vegetables a day, including green varieties, she says. Be sure to sauté the heart-healthy foods in olive oil or drizzle them with salad dressing — pairing them with healthy fats will help your body absorb their nutrients.