7 Heart-Healthy Foods to Eat on Repeat
If there’s one organ in your body that knows how to hustle, it’s your heart. Case in point: The fist-sized structure is in charge of pumping blood throughout your entire body, delivering essential nutrients and oxygen to tissues, muscles, and organs. It also pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood per day (!) and beats more than 2.5 million times over 70 years, according to the American Heart Association. Needless to say, your heart works hard.
The Importance of Heart Health
All that said, it’s worth prioritizing cardiovascular health, a key aspect of overall wellness. This is especially crucial as you get older, as aging increases the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. Over time, your heart and blood vessels undergo a series of changes. This includes increased hardening of the arteries, or arteriosclerosis, according to the National Institute of Aging. Arteriosclerosis can snowball into high blood pressure, or hypertension, causing issues with proper blood flow. Other age-related changes involve your heart’s structure and electrical system, which can affect its overall function.
But fear not: Aging is just one piece of the heart disease puzzle. Even as you inevitably get older, it’s possible to protect your heart by engaging in some basic healthy habits. This includes being physically active, avoiding cigarette use, moderating alcohol intake—and, of course, including plenty of heart-friendly foods in your diet.
Nutrition for Heart Health
First, let’s break down the intended effects of a heart-healthy diet. The general goal is to reduce or prevent high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, the two major risk factors of heart disease. It also helps manage oxidative stress and inflammation, which can both contribute to heart issues.
In general, the best foods for the heart are whole and plant-based, like whole grains and colorful fruits and veggies. These eats are packed with fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants that are all essential for optimal heart function. They also include ingredients that are high in anti-inflammatory unsaturated (“good”) fatty acids, like omega-3, according to Trent Orfanos, MD, ABIHM, cardiologist and director of integrative and functional cardiology at Case Integrative Health. Avocados, olive oil, salmon, nuts, and seeds are all excellent natural sources of these heart-healthy fats.
Eating for heart health involves limiting certain foods too. According to Dr. Orfanos, processed and refined products, which are typically stripped of their most beneficial nutrients (like fiber), but remain high in simple carbs, trans fat, saturated fat, and added salt and sugars. Excess intake of these nutrients can eventually contribute to various heart disease risks, including high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol.
So, what exactly counts as a heart-healthy food, and what are the all-time healthiest foods to eat for your ticker? Here’s what to put on your plate regularly to support your heart health, according to nutrition and medical professionals.
Strawberries, blueberries, and other bright, juicy berries are staple heart-friendly foods. “Berries are chock-full of powerful nutrients, such as fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants, which are beneficial for your heart,” Dr. Orfanos says. They’re also teeming with anthocyanins, antioxidant plant pigments that give red, blue, and purple produce (including berries) their color. According to a 2021 article in Frontiers in Nutrition, berry anthocyanins can help reduce blood cholesterol and inflammation, ultimately protecting against heart disease.
Dr. Orfanos suggests eating at least three half-cup servings of berries per week. Luckily, this is easy to do, as berries work well on their own as a standalone snack or sweet dessert, as well as elevate limitless recipes, including smoothies, yogurt, plain or baked oatmeal (which is already incredibly good for your heart!), and salads.
The health benefits of nuts are plenty. According to Rhyan Geiger, RDN, registered dietitian and founder of Phoenix Vegan Dietitian, nuts like almonds, walnuts, and pistachios offer omega-3 fatty acids, or extremely healthy unsaturated fats. These nutrients protect the heart by managing high blood cholesterol and inflammation, which are both involved in the development of heart disease. Not to mention that nuts are fantastic sources of fiber and plant sterols, which also have cholesterol-lowering effects. When possible, go for unsalted nuts, as excess salt can lead to high blood pressure.
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The recommended nut intake is 1.5 ounces (a small handful of nuts or two tablespoons of nut butter) at least four times a week, according to the American Heart Association. Try adding nuts to oatmeal, smoothies, salads, granola, or homemade trail mix.
Whole grains—like oats (and oatmeal), quinoa, and whole wheat breads—are some of the best foods for the heart. As the name suggests, whole grains contain all three parts of the grain: the bran, germ, and endosperm. These grain components contain many of the nutrients—like magnesium, unsaturated fat, and fiber—needed for top-notch cardiovascular function, Dr. Orfanos says.
On the other hand, refined grains like white bread and white pasta, while delicious, are sadly stripped of the most nutrient-rich parts of the grain. And while there’s no harm in occasionally enjoying these foods, prioritizing whole grains will do your heart a world of good. Aim for “three servings of whole grains daily, with one serving [being equal] to half a cup or one slice of whole grain bread,” Dr. Orfanos says. Swap out white rice for quinoa in your next burrito bowl, eat some warming, heart-healthy oatmeal for breakfast, and buy yourself a few boxes of whole wheat pasta for a hearty change of pace.
Show your heart some love by eating more beans (and other legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and even peanuts). Beans of all varieties aren’t just budget-friendly and shelf-stable; these legumes are incredible sources of inflammation-busting polyphenols and cholesterol-lowering fiber, according to a 2021 article in the journal Nutrition. The fiber in beans also supports gut health, which helps pump the brakes on inflammation, further protecting your heart.
If you’re not quite sure how to eat beans, try substituting bean-based mains (like chickpea burgers) for animal proteins high in saturated fat (like red meat) whenever possible—or start by eating a smaller portion of meat while supplementing with beans (a great way to save a little money too!). It’s a filling, delicious way to get more plant-based protein and fiber in while reducing saturated fats. But don’t worry—there’s no need to ditch red meat all at once. Replacing red meat with plant-based foods, like beans, even once a week can have a positive impact on your heart, Geiger says.
No heart-healthy foods list would be complete without fatty fish, which are rich in omega-3 fats. These nutrients mainly support the heart by reducing inflammation, Dr. Orfanos says. In fact, regularly noshing on fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon, canned light tuna, cod, and sardines, is linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, as noted by the American Heart Association.
Dr. Orfanos recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week. One serving equals 3 ounces of cooked fish or ¾-cup of flaked fish. There are tons of tasty, fatty seafood options to try, pretty much all of which work well in dishes like warm salads, tossed grain dishes, or tacos.
“Leafy greens, such as spinach, lettuce, and arugula, are another vital part of a heart-healthy diet,” Dr. Orfanos says. This is because they’re high in nitrates (i.e., nitrogen-based compounds) and fiber. “Nitrates are converted to nitric acid in the body, which helps decrease blood pressure,” he explains. “Fiber is important for its ability to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.” Leafy greens also contain other key heart nutrients, including B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium, he adds.
“Aim to consume at least 3 cups of greens a day. Try a fresh salad, or if you don’t like the taste, blend it into smoothies with berries,” Dr. Orfanos suggests. Bonus: By eating more leafy greens, you’ll help your brain and metabolism too. Is there anything greens can’t do?
Green tea is excellent for your heart. And this includes dried green teas steeped from a tea bag as well as matcha, which is a potent powdered tea made from ground young green tea leaves. According to Geiger, green tea contains catechin, a powerful antioxidant that blocks the main enzymes involved in the production of cholesterol, thereby reducing its absorption in the intestines and improving overall cholesterol levels, she says.
Green tea is delicious as is, either piping hot or ice cold, but don’t hesitate to get creative with this tasty drink. Enjoy the heart benefits of tea by using it in lattes, smoothies, flavored lemonades, baked goods, or even rice.
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contributed By Kirsten Nunez