Food can start you on a path to heart disease — the leading cause of death in the U.S. — or help prevent high cholesterol, clogged arteries and heart attacks.
Diet can have a huge impact on heart health, says Dr. Sean Heffron, a cardiologist in the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at NYU Langone Health in New York.
“What we eat can influence our blood pressure, our blood sugar, our cholesterol levels, certainly our body weight,” Heffron tells TODAY.com.
“All of those things have a direct impact on the vasculature of the blood vessels of the body and can drive atherosclerotic heart disease. So what we eat is very important.”
The first step in the right direction is eliminating processed foods, which are high in salt and fat, and eat more whole fresh foods like fruits and vegetables, says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist, clinical associate professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
She follows a plant-based diet, but tells people they don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to enjoy heart health. There are lots of options to eat more plant-based foods.
“Generally, my mode of diet is following a Mediterranean-style diet,” Goldberg notes. “Many studies have shown that it has cardiovascular benefit in that it helps to control cholesterol, blood sugar. It also lowers risk for heart disease. I practice what I preach.”
The American Heart Association advises people to focus on a heart-healthy eating pattern rather than individual foods, but certain options stand out when it comes to heart health.
Here are heart-healthy foods to add to your menu:
Nuts and seeds
A handful of nuts each day may lower risk of heart disease, studies have found.
“Nuts are high in healthy fat, fiber, minerals, vitamins and several other bioactive compounds, such as antioxidants, which may in part explain their beneficial effects on cardiovascular health,” Marta Guasch-Ferre, a researcher in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, previously told TODAY.com.
Cardiologists list nuts — all types, not just walnuts — among their favorite snacks.
Seeds, like pumpkin seeds, are plant-based sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are heart-healthy unsaturated fats. They’re also rich in fiber, vitamin E, zinc, potassium, magnesium, iron and calcium.
Deeply colored fruits and vegetables
Diets rich in fruits and vegetables — whether fresh, frozen, canned or dried, but “with the exception for white potatoes” — are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, according to a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.
It recommends eating whole fruits and vegetables rather than juicing them to get the most fiber, and choosing deeply-colored produce such as leafy greens and peaches, which tend to be more nutrient dense than paler options.
Dark leafy greens are also rich in magnesium. Low levels of the mineral have been linked to elevated markers of inflammation, which can increase the risk of heart disease, experts previously told TODAY.com.
Beans and legumes are high in minerals and fiber, which has been shown to help protect against heart disease, the American Heart Association notes.
They also provide plant-based protein without the saturated fat found in some animal proteins.
Phytochemicals found in beans and legumes are “considerably beneficial” in improving cholesterol levels and reducing markers of chronic inflammation, a 2021 study found.
In addition, high amounts of dietary fiber — like those provided by beans — have an anti-obesity effect and are “profoundly effective” in preventing obesity-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, the authors noted.
Eating more whole grains like whole-wheat flour, oatmeal and brown rice, instead of white flour, white bread and white rice, improves cardiovascular risk factors, the scientific statement from the American Heart Association noted.
Oats, for example, contain a fermentable soluble fiber that helps reduce cholesterol by “grabbing onto it and escorting it through your digestive system and out of your body,” says nutritionist Joy Bauer.
Eating more whole grains also helps people stop midlife weight gain, a recent study found.
Cold-water fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines, contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, according to the National Institutes of Health. Eating 3 grams of omega-3s every day — the amount provided by 4 to 5 ounces of Atlantic salmon — could help lower blood pressure, a 2022 study found.
The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish per week, particularly from the above list, noting fish is a good source of protein that’s not high in saturated fat.
Fans of avocado toast, rejoice. Eating two or more servings of the fruit per week was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a 2022 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Keep in mind one serving equals half an avocado, so it’s best to not overdo it because the calories add up quickly.
Replacing half a serving daily of margarine, butter, egg, yogurt, cheese or processed meats with the same amount of avocado was also associated with a lower risk, the same study found.
Eating avocados five or more times per week was linked with a 17% decrease in the rate of high blood pressure, separate research found in 2023.
Extra virgin olive oil
A key component of the Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil is a healthy monounsaturated fat that’s been called “one of the most nutrient-dense and disease-fighting foods on the planet.”
It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Eating more than half a tablespoon of olive oil per day was associated with a 19% lower risk of dying from heart disease compared to never or rarely consuming it, a 2022 study found.
Olive oil can lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL, and it’s been shown to lower blood pressure, the American Heart Association noted.
Nature’s colorful gems are low in calories and high in fiber, vitamins and antioxidants — compounds that combat cell damage.
A 2021 study linking strawberries to heart health found eating 2.5 servings of strawberries per day for four weeks improved LDL cholesterol levels in adults with obesity and high cholesterol.
Eating a cup of blueberries a day reduces the risk factors for cardiovascular disease by up to 15%, a 2019 study found.
When people with obesity ate that amount of blueberries in freeze-dried form every day for six months, researchers saw improvements in their vascular function and arterial stiffness, compared to a placebo group.
Studies have shown an association between eating chocolate and a lower risk of heart disease, nutritionist Keri Glassman points out.
Dark chocolate is rich in flavanols, a natural compound that can lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease, adds Frances Largeman-Roth, a registered dietitian. She recommends 1 ounce of dark chocolate a day.
No wonder cardiologists list dark chocolate as one of their favorite desserts.
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