With heart disease as the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, paying attention to your heart health is more important than ever (1). Although it may seem as if eating heart healthy foods is synonymous with a bland diet, there are actually many foods that are great for your heart and tasty, too. Here is a list of incredibly tasty foods that are good for the heart. But first–a little lesson on heart health!
The Basics of Heart Health
Your heart truly is the most important muscle in your body. It beats over 100,000 times a day and pumps and five or six quarts of blood each minute (2). The outside of your heart is all muscles, but the inside is made of 4 hollow chambers.
The top of the right side of the heart receives blood from the veins, and the bottom right side pushes it towards the lung to be oxygenated. Oxygenated blood comes back to the heart through the top left side and is pushed by the bottom left towards the aorta and back into circulation (3). The heart doesn’t receive oxygen or nutrients when it’s filled with blood. Instead, it’s fed through a system of coronary arteries that branch off from the aorta (4).
When arterial plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, inactive collateral vessels take on the extra work to make sure your heart is protected and nourished.
According to the Center for Disease Control, heart disease is an incredibly common and deadly condition. The term “heart disease” often refers to cardiovascular disease, a condition in which blood vessels are too narrow or too congested with plaque to ensure proper heart function. The condition can lead to heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke (5).
True heart disease, on the other hand, isn’t just one condition: it’s an umbrella term from illnesses of the heart (6).
- Blood vessel diseases, such as coronary artery disease
- Heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias)
- Heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects)
Symptoms of heart disease can include (7):
- Chest pain (angina)
- Shortness of breath
- Pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in your legs or arms
- Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back
Each specific condition also has its own set of symptoms.
Things That Stress Out Your Heart
Here are a few factors that negatively impact heart health (8):
Smoking: Nicotine constricts blood vessels and increases your risk of atherosclerosis and heart attack.
Poor diet: Eating too much fat, salt, sugar, and cholesterol can contribute towards heart disease.
High blood pressure: Chronic high blood pressure hardens, thickens, and narrows your blood vessels.
High cholesterol: High cholesterol leads to the formation of arterial plaque and atherosclerosis.
Diabetes: Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease.
Obesity: Excess weight can contribute towards other risk factors.
Physical inactivity: Lack of exercise contributes towards other risk factors and can lead to a weak heart muscle.
Stress: Chronic stress damages your blood vessels and heart, and negatively impacts heart health.
Poor immune function: Some viral or bacterial infections can put you at risk of heart infections.
Top 17 Heart Healthy Foods
Here are the heart healthy foods your body is begging you to eat!
Avocado contains heart healthy fiber, vitamin B, vitamin C, potassium, and healthy fats. In fact, their monounsaturated fats lower cholesterol to improve heart disease risk factors (9). Plus, avocados are incredibly tasty and are great in homemade guacamole or desserts. You can also use avocado oil to make salad dressing.
Blueberries are a tasty fruit that contains a ton of antioxidants. A 2013 study on women aged 25-42 found that eating 3 or more servings of blueberries and strawberries a week reduced heart disease risk by 32%. This is mainly due to anthocyanins and flavonoids that decrease blood pressure and dilate blood vessels (10). Blueberries are also rich in fiber, and the combination helps control cholesterol levels as well as plaque.
Almonds contain omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, antioxidants, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, vitamin E, and magnesium, all of which protect your heart. In fact, nut consumption is positively associated with a lower risk of heart disease for both women and men. Nuts also lower your risk of gallstones and prevents diabetes in women (11). As with blueberries, you can eat them as an individual snack or mix them into yogurt.
4. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is probably the tastiest heart healthy food you can find. It contains flavanols, which are an anti-inflammatory and help control blood pressure, clotting, and inflammation. It’s scientifically proven too: a 2012 study found that eating dark chocolate daily reduces the risk of nonfatal heart attack and stroke in high-risk individuals (12). In addition, dark chocolate will level out your cholesterol and blood sugar levels. You should choose a brand that has a cocoa content of 70% or more.
Papaya is a delicious tropical fruit with vitamins C and A. It also contains high levels of fiber, folic acid, and potassium. Potassium is a crucial vitamin to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. The nutrients in papaya also help prevent diabetes, cancer, poor digestion, high blood glucose in diabetics, high blood pressure, and slow wound healing (13). You can mix papaya into a healthy fruit salad or try creating papaya salsa.
6. Sweet Potato
Not everyone likes sweet potatoes, but they are much more heart healthy than regular white potatoes. They contain vitamins A and C as well as fiber and potassium.
It’s estimated that less than 2% of US adult meet their daily potassium needs, so sweet potatoes really are worth the switch! Plus, they also contain choline, which helps to maintain the structure of cellular membranes, aids in the transmission of nerve impulses, assists in the absorption of fat, and reduces chronic inflammation (14).Try delicious baked sweet potato fries for a healthier alternative to regular French fries.
7. Red Bell Peppers
While all bell peppers have vitamins A and C, red bell peppers contain the most. They also have capsaicin, which improves cholesterol and blood flow. In fact, capsaicin prevents excessive blood clotting (15). You can use red bell peppers for grilling, stuffing, or in salads.
8. Red Wine
It’s not necessarily a food item, but red wine is very heart healthy. It is rich in resveratrol, which is an antioxidant that can help protect the lining of your heart’s blood vessels (16). Regularly drinking small amounts of wine can help condition your cardiovascular system to improve its adaptive stress response, forcing the expression of cardioprotective genes and proteins (17). It goes without saying that you should drink red wine in moderation.
Oranges are full of flavones, which can lower your bad cholesterol and raise the good cholesterol in your body. You can eat them individually or drink fresh orange juice.
In one study, women who consumed high amounts of the flavonoids from oranges and grapefruits had a 19% lower risk of ischemic stroke than women who don’t get as much of these compounds (18). Oranges and other citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, which also lowers your risk of heart disease.
Salmon is a fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for your heart. Getting enough omega-3 lowers your risk of arrhythmia and atherosclerosis while also lowering your triglyceride levels. According to the American Heart Association, you should eat salmon or other fatty fish at least twice a week (19).
Pomegranate’s bright red color gives a clue of what organ it benefits most! In one study, three months of daily pomegranate juice ingestion improved blood flow to the heart of heart disease patients. The juice also improves stress-induced myocardial ischemia. This is thanks to the soluble polyphenols, tannins, and anthocyanins found in the fruit (20).
Tomatoes are a classic heart-boosting choice! The fruit contains lycopene, as well as beta-carotene, folate, potassium, vitamin C, flavonoids, and vitamin E. These nutrients feed your heart and protect it from damage by reducing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, homocysteine, platelet aggregation, and blood pressure (21).
Oatmeal is packed with cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber. Lauren Graf, a registered dietician and co-director of the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, explains: “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.” (22) Eat oatmeal for breakfast or sprinkle some oats into your post-workout smoothie.
14. Olive Oil
At the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil a day reduces your risk of heart attacks, strokes, and overall mortality by 30%. This is partly due to its monounsaturated fats, which can help reduce both cholesterol and blood sugar levels (23).
15. Red Grapes and Raisins
Red grapes, like red wine, are packed with resveratrol, which helps keep platelets in your blood from sticking together. Raisins, which are simply dried grapes, “… are packed with potassium, which is known to lower blood pressure,” says Harold Bays, MD, medical director and president of Louisville Metabolic and Atherosclerosis Research Center. “They are also a good source of antioxidant dietary fiber that may favorably alter the biochemistry of blood vessels, causing them to be less stiff, which in turn, may reduce blood pressure.”(24)
16. Flax Seed
Chock-full of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, flax seeds are a true heart-boosting food. Chia seeds are equally heart-healthy too!
17. Green Tea
Green tea contains catechins, which have the ability to prevent atherosclerosis, hypertension, endothelial dysfunction, ischemic heart diseases, cardiomyopathy, cardiac hypertrophy and congestive heart failure. They work by decreasing oxidative stress, preventing inflammatory events, reducing platelet aggregation and halting the proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cells (25).
In fact, a 2013 study found that people who drank four or more cups of green tea daily had a 20% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke when compared to people who rarely drank tea (26).
How to Prevent Heart Disease
The key to keeping your heart well is to take care of it every day. Pay attention to your portion sizes, eat plenty of fresh heart healthy foods, avoid sodium, and stay away from unhealthy fats.
It’s also important to eat whole grains, like quinoa, barley, amaranth, and teff; limit consumption of alcohol and processed meats; and stop smoking. Lastly, you’ll have to reduce your stress levels, stay hydrated, and exercise daily.
For more information about heart healthy foods as well as foods that are deadly to your heart, check out the helpful infographic below.