8 Surprising Foods for Heart Health
Knocking out an hour on the treadmill will get your blood pumping, but when it comes to having a strong, healthy heart, how you fuel your body is just as important as how often you move it.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a heart-healthy diet limits sodium, unhealthy fats, and bad cholesterol and is rich in lean protein, whole grains, fruits, and veggies. And while everyone knows that salmon, nuts and even red wine can help protect your ticker from disease, there are plenty of lesser-known foods that pack major benefits. The tasty foods that follow are bursting with antioxidants and nutrients that can lower your cholesterol, prevent plaque buildup, and even reduce your risk for atherosclerosis (the hardening and narrowing of arteries), a common cause of heart attack and stroke.
It might be hard to distinguish chia seeds from bird feed, but your soon-to-be stronger heart will thank you. “Chia seeds are a nutrition powerhouse,” says Robin Barrie Kaiden, RD. “They offer maximum nutrition and minimal calories. They’re filling, energizing and loaded with vitamins and minerals.” One tablespoon of chia seeds contains just 60 calories, as well as 3 g of heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids, which help lower blood pressure and triglycerides, and aids in the reduction of plaque buildup. The whopping 6 g of fiber a teaspoon of chia seeds packs (a slice of 100 percent whole grain bread contains only 3 g) also promotes a healthy heart. Soluble fiber binds around bile, which is partially composed of bad cholesterol, in the gut and helps eliminate it with the body’s waste, says Julie Zumpano, RD, LD, of the Preventative Cardiology and Women’s Cardiovascular Center at the Cleveland Clinic. Chia can be eaten by the spoonful, blended into smoothies, or stirred into soups, and it also makes a great salad or yogurt topper. To get benefits on the go, try 100-calorie Health Warrior Chia Bars.
This little fish is so much more than a tasty pizza topping. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in only two forms: in plants (like chia seeds) or in oil-rich, fatty fish such as sardines. Fish oil not only increases your HDL, or “good,” cholesterol (which helps prevent heart attack) but also reduces the risk of sudden death in people who have already suffered a heart attack, according to the Mayo Clinic. Fresh sardines are great sauteed in olive oil with lemon and garlic — plus, they’re tiny, so they cook quickly. Chopped sardines are perfect for topping salads or adding extra flavor to pasta and vegetable dishes in the place of other flavorful, high-cholesterol proteins, like bacon. Fresh is always best; if you have canned sardines on hand, remember that they tend to have a higher sodium content. Individuals on a sodium-restricted diet — like those with high blood pressure — should carefully account for this detail, says Zumpano.
To boost your heart health, go blue! Blueberries contain a compound known as anthocyanin, a type of flavonoid. Flavonoids are antioxidants, which protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, and have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, says Zumpano. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who consumed the highest amount of anthocyanin in their diet — mostly from eating lots of blueberries and strawberries — saw an 8 percent reduction in their risk for high blood pressure, compared with those who ate the least amount of anthocyanin. The same study found that people who consumed at least one serving of blueberries per week were 10 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who ate no blueberries.
For those who think fiber and cardboard are synonymous, we’ve got a sweet surprise: Just one cup of baked yams provides you with more than 21 percent of your daily recommended intake of dietary fiber, which helps your body rid itself of bile and the LDL (“bad”) cholesterol it contains. Yams and sweet potatoes also contain beta-carotene, a carotenoid. Carotenoids are heart-protective antioxidants found in many colorful fruits and veggies, like carrots, bell peppers, and tomatoes — all heart smart choices.
Rolled or Steel-Cut Oatmeal
Oatmeal may not be a surprising food for cardiovascular health, but this fact will stun many: Those instant oats you enjoy every morning aren’t working as hard for your heart as you think. Some maple and brown sugar varieties contain just as much sugar (13 g) as a brown sugar- and cinnamon- flavored Pop-Tart. “When choosing oatmeal, pick the least processed,” says Kaiden. “When it’s chopped and heavily processed with sugar and other additives, you lose some of the fiber, not to mention compromise the overall nutrition. The healthiest oatmeal is just plain, rolled or steel-cut oats.” If that sounds too boring, try adding cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger for a chai tea-inspired take, or go with nonfat Greek yogurt and strawberries.
Yes, you read that right. A 2011 review published in the British Medical Journal suggested that the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease (plus a 29 percent reduction in stroke) compared with the lowest levels. But don’t take that as an excuse to polish off every box of Russell Stover’s that rolls your way this Valentine’s Day. Zumpano suggests choosing dark chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cocoa, the ingredient responsible for making chocolate heart-smart. Flavonol, the flavonoid found in cocoa, helps lower blood pressure, improve blood flow, reduce the free radical damage that can increase LDL. But, you would with any food purchase, read the ingredients list. “You don’t want to see any hydrogenated oil or trans fat in there,” says Zumpano. Also avoid tropical oils like palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil, which are high in saturated fat.
Like chia seeds, beans are a natural plant source of heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. A large national survey found that eating four or more servings of legumes per week was enough to decrease the risk of heart disease by 22 percent compared with eating legumes only once a week. Beans are not only loaded with soluble fiber (half a cup of kidney beans contains nearly a quarter of your daily recommended intake), they also allow you to add protein to your diet without consuming the unwanted cholesterol found in meat. Just one chicken breast can contain 73 mg, or nearly a quarter of your daily recommended allowance of cholesterol.
Warm your tummy while boosting your heart health. A Chinese study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed a 46 percent to 65 percent reduction in hypertension risk in regular consumers of oolong or green tea compared with non-consumers. Green tea contains heart-healthy flavonols, as well as catechin, an antioxidant that helps fight free radicals that can contribute to cancer, blood clots, and atherosclerosis.
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