The cardiovascular system is at the “heart” of overall health and wellness–meaning it’s pivotal. And yet, nearly half (46%) of Americans suffer from some form of heart condition–be it abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, or others.
Regardless of your family history, protecting your cardiovascular system is essential. In this article, we’ll discuss why it’s so important and explore the best and worst foods for heart health.
Why heart health is so important?
Heart health plays a central role in keeping us alive. It pumps oxygenated blood throughout the body, which delivers nutrients and vital substances to cells while removing toxins and waste. In this way, the heart ensures delivery of oxygen for cellular function and strong immunity.
According to Dr. Mark Moyad, Director of Preventative and Alternative Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center, “Every disease is connected to heart health, including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, diabetes, and breast cancer.” This may be because these diseases share common risk factors, such as diet, weight, tobacco use, and inflammation–all of which impact cardiovascular function.
By prioritizing heart health through lifestyle choices, you can reduce your risk of disease and enhance your vitality. And one of the most important habits you can adopt is eating the right foods–and avoiding problematic ones.
Best foods for heart health
Leafy greens: There’s no doubt that fruits and vegetables are great for all aspects of wellness. But leafy green vegetables, in particular, are some of the best foods for your heart.
They’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants–especially vitamin K, which helps protect your arteries and encourages proper blood clotting. Greens are also high in nitrates, natural compounds that help lower blood pressure and boost arterial health.
Some studies suggest that adding more leafy greens to your diet is associated with up to a 16% lower risk of developing heart disease. So enjoy delicious, raw salads or veggie sautes with:
- Mustard or collard greens
Whole grains: Whole grains are grains that include the germ, endosperm, and bran of the seed. The fiber in these grains binds to excess cholesterol in the digestive tract, aiding its elimination from the body.
Research shows that consuming 10 to 25 grams of soluble fiber daily may lower blood levels of C-reactive protein, a key indicator of inflammation. Reducing inflammation is crucial, as it helps mitigate the risk of cardiovascular disease by preventing the formation of plaque that blocks arteries.
Enjoy whole grains daily, such as:
- Whole wheat
- Brown rice
Cold-water fish: Cold-water fish is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which are renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties. These polyunsaturated fats help regulate heart rate and blood clotting, ultimately lowering the risk of life-threatening blockages in the arteries.
The American Heart Association recommends consuming 6 ounces of omega-3-rich fish twice a week. Examples include:
- Pacific cod
Nuts and seeds: Nuts are packed with vitamins, minerals, monounsaturated fats, and fiber, all of which can lower blood pressure and provide protection against heart disease. Seeds are also fantastic sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Studies show that eating nuts like almonds and walnuts daily can reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower cardiovascular disease risk. And seeds like pumpkin seeds, chia and flax have been linked to reduced blood pressure and C-reactive protein levels.
Consider adding a couple of tablespoons of nuts and/or seeds to your yogurt, oatmeal, or salads.
Garlic: Garlic may be one of the most well-known foods for better heart health.
Studies show garlic may inhibit the buildup of platelets (large cell pieces in bone marrow) in the blood, thus reducing the risk of blood clots and stroke. This humble bulb also contains a powerful compound called allicin, which may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
To harness the benefits of garlic, eat a clove raw or crush it and let it sit for a few minutes before cooking, allowing the formation of allicin.
You can also take a garlic supplement. Research shows doses of 600–1,500 mg daily have comparable results to common prescription hypertensive drugs.
Olive oil: Olive oil is rich in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce the risk of chronic diseases. It’s also high in anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fatty acids.
Studies show those consuming high amounts of olive oil have a significantly lower risk of developing heart disease and a reduced risk of heart disease-related mortality. Olive oil can also prevent and even reduce high blood pressure.
Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over cooked dishes and incorporate it into vinaigrettes and sauces.
Polyphenol-rich foods: Polyphenols, such as resveratrol (found in grapes and wine) and curcumin (found in turmeric), are powerful antioxidants.
They’re found abundantly in colorful, plant-based foods, and offer significant protection against atherosclerosis, the stiffening or narrowing of the arteries. Furthermore, by preventing the oxidation and buildup of LDL cholesterol, polyphenols contribute to improved blood flow and help maintain healthy blood vessels.
Enjoy plenty of polyphenol-rich foods daily, such as:
- Red wine
- Dark chocolate
- Green tea
Try adding polyphenol-packed spices to your meals, too. Great options include:
Worst foods for heart health
While focusing on heart-healthy foods is crucial, so is avoiding foods that harm your cardiovascular system. Here are some of the biggest offenders.
Fried foods: While delicious, fried foods are typically very high in saturated fat and trans fat, which not only contribute to the buildup of LDL cholesterol in your arteries but also increase the risk of obesity, which is a major indicator of heart disease.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends limiting saturated fat intake to 10% or less of your daily calories.
Avoid foods like:
- French fries
- Onion rings
- Fried chicken and fish
- Deep-fried pastries
- Processed meats
Not only are processed meats packed with saturated fat and sodium–which have been linked to cancer, obesity, and heart disease–but they’re typically high in preservatives like sodium nitrite, which have been linked to inflammation.
Researchers have directly connected chronic inflammation to the development of atherosclerosis. So it’s best to avoid or minimize your consumption of foods like:
- Lunch meats like turkey, ham, salami, and bologna
- Hot dogs
- Bacon (although you can find healthier, nitrite-free options)
Grain-fed beef: All red meat contains saturated fat, which can contribute to high cholesterol and heart disease. But grain-fed beef, in particular, is loaded with this type of fat. That’s why many experts suggest avoiding red meat altogether or limiting your intake to twice a week.
If you’re going to eat beef, opt for grass-fed. It typically contains less saturated fat, as well as less total fat, more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and more vitamin E than grain-fed varieties.
It also contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid with anti‐inflammatory benefits. It may even protect us from certain heart disease risk factors like obesity.
Prepackaged foods: Prepackaged foods are loaded with sodium, which can lead to high blood pressure and increase the risk of stroke or heart attack.
The NIH advises consuming no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. If you already have high blood pressure, experts recommend reducing your sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day.
Instead of prepackaged or canned foods, try meal prepping with fresh foods on weekends and freezing portions of your leftovers for the week ahead.
Sugar: Sugar’s role in obesity and diabetes means it significantly increases the risk of heart disease. High-sugar diets have also been linked to high blood pressure and inflammation–two key factors in cardiovascular conditions.
The American Heart Association suggests that women limit their daily sugar intake to 24 grams, while men should aim for no more than 36 grams. Unfortunately, the average American consumes a staggering 110 grams of sugar per day.
Minimize your consumption of sugar-laden drinks, snacks, and condiments such as:
- Fruit juices
- Sweetened teas
- Sweetened dried fruit
- Bottled salad dressings
By familiarizing yourself with the best and worst foods for heart health and making conscious choices, you can protect and even improve the well-being of your cardiovascular system. Remember, a mindful approach to eating, along with regular exercise and other healthy practices, plays a crucial role in nurturing a strong and resilient heart.
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