Optimize for Cardiovascular Health with These Heart-Friendly Foods

A while ago, we wrote a popular post called “Healthy Diet, Healthy Brain,” itemizing specific things you can add to your plate to boost brain power. In honor of American Heart Month, we’re going to create a similar post, this time with a focus on the heart. After all, as we noted in our post a couple weeks ago on the status of heart health in America, eating the right foods and nixing less healthy ones can drastically alter your odds of experiencing heart disease, diabetes, or stroke.

Without further ado, below are some things to include in your diet when optimizing for heart health.

Leafy Green, Allium and Cruciferous Vegetables

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to reorienting your diet toward a more heart-healthy program, start with these classes of veggies. According to a 2015 study published in Nutrients, “increasing vegetable intake, with a focus on consuming leafy green and cruciferous vegetables may provide the greatest cardiovascular health benefits” (among other things, they feature nitrate, which has been cited as a blood vessel stabilizer), and that “a class of organosulfur compounds found in allium vegetables” (including onions and garlic) may slow the progression of certain arterial diseases thanks to anti-inflammatory effects and improved circulation.

Looking for specific foods to eat? Here are some items to add to your diet immediately:

  • Allium: Garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, chives
  • Cruciferous: Cabbage, broccoli, kale, radish, cauliflower
  • Leafy Greens: Spinach, chard, arugula, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, bok choy

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts are absolute powerhouses when it comes to promoting cardiovascular health. According to a 2010 report, the following conclusions have been reached through scientific study about the power of “going nuts”:

  • Nut consumption is associated with “a reduced incidence of coronary heart disease and gallstones in both genders and diabetes in women.”
  • Eating nuts may mitigate the effects of hypertension and inflammation.
  • Consuming nuts may help lower cholesterol and have “beneficial effects on oxidative stress, inflammation, and vascular reactivity.”
  • Nuts can help control blood pressure and reduce the likelihood of developing a number of cardiovascular disorders.

Furthermore, despite being a fat-rich food source, “nut consumption is unlikely to contribute to obesity and may even help in weight loss.”

Likewise, seed consumption can also be great for the heart. Research suggests that eating seeds can help decrease the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease and may help control blood pressure. Seeds are also rich in vitamins and minerals.

Additionally, as a 2014 paper published in heart-health journal Circulation suggests, “While some seed components (soluble fiber, unsaturated fatty acids, phytosterols) have the potential to reduce blood cholesterol, the whole seed provides a wide array of bioactive molecules likely to have synergistic effects on health outcomes.” In other words, eating seeds in their entirety is the best way to ensure optimal heart-health benefits.

Of course, as with all things, enjoy your nuts and seeds in moderation. (The Cleveland Clinic helps breakdown optimal serving sizes of several varieties of nuts.)

Here are some great nuts and seeds to consider adding to your dietary mix:

  • Nuts: Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews, macadamia nuts
  • Seeds: Chia, quinoa, sunflower, pumpkin, hemp, flax, sesame

Whole Grains

There’s a lot of noise online about whether or not grains should be a part of the average American’s diet. Like most things with health and nutrition, grain consumption isn’t a black-and-white matter.

On the one hand, a number of scientific studies point to whole grains as being heart-friendly foods.  A 2016 report, for example, suggests conclusively that “whole grain intake is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and total cancer” and that its findings “support dietary guidelines that recommend increased intake of whole grain to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and premature mortality.”

Where the nuance on this matter comes into play is in relation to the types of grains individuals consume. As a 2010 study published in The Journal of Nutrition highlights, eating whole grains could “lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease” thanks to “an effect on plasma inflammatory protein concentrations”; the article then recommends that “whole grains be consumed daily as part of a healthy diet.” However, refined grain intake is another story; refined grains were concluded to have potential “proinflammatory effects.” This is likely due to the fact that the refinement process tends to strip grains of their heart-healthy properties and removes the highly beneficial fiber so critical to our total health and wellness.

We’ll get to our list of “refined grains to avoid” below, but in the meantime, here are some healthy grains that you can add to your “nice” foods list:

  • Whole grains: Farro, barley, brown/wild/sprouted/black rice, buckwheat, cracked wheat (aka bulgur), millet, steel cut oats, popcorn (hold the butter and don’t add too much salt), whole-wheat breads, pastas, and crackers

Beans and Other Legumes

Beans and other legumes are not only viable protein substitutes for fattier meat products (which can negatively impact heart health), some studies suggest they also have a more direct—and positive—impact on heart health. As pointed out in a 2014 report, beans (especially dried beans) are “rich in a number of important micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, folate, iron, and zinc….[and] are among the only plant foods that provide significant amounts of the indispensable amino acid lysine.” They’re also loaded with soluble fiber, have a low glycemic index, provide the body with vital antioxidants, and may help reduce the “risk of ischemic heart disease and diabetes.” (Note: Make sure you investigate how to properly prepare dried legumes before cooking and consumption—preparation of dried legumes can have a major impact on how much you enjoy them and the health benefits you reap from them.)

Here are some great beans and legumes to incorporate into your diet today:

  • Legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, peas, black beans, soybeans (stick to organic options), pinto beans, navy beans, whole peanuts

Healthy Dairy, Fish, and Fats

As with grains, recommendations around fats and heart health all come down to the types of fats you’re consuming. As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to avoid saturated and trans fats when possible.

As a 2017 Nutrition Journal article notes, there’s a “positive linear relationship between total saturated fat intake and LDL-C concentrations.” While some amount of saturated fat in a diet is okay (especially when eaten as part of a whole food and not an isolated ingredient), the article recommends focusing, instead, on food choices rich in “polyunsaturated fatty acids” (which include both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), noting that these “are the most beneficial replacement nutrient for [cardiovascular disease] risk reduction.”

Additionally, the article suggests that some types of dairy are better than others when it comes to fat consumption: “Butter and whole milk increase total cholesterol and LDL-C,” while cheese faired a bit better during scientific trials. Yogurt that featured the right bacterial strains was also shown to have some benefits for cardiovascular health.

Here’s a quick list of some healthy fat choices:

  • Fish: Albacore tuna, sockeye salmon, scallops, mussels, sardines, mackerel, herring, lake or rainbow trout
  • Dairy: Low-fat cheese, bacteria-rich yoghurt (read the labels to make sure the sugar levels are low—sometimes dairy producers add sugar when they take out fat to compensate for flavor)
  • Oils: Olive, safflower, canola, flaxseed, avocado, walnut, grapeseed, sesame

The Foods to Avoid When Eating for Heart Health

No one can be held to a perfect dietary standard all the time, but when optimizing for heart health, try to limit consumption of the following items:

  • Refined grains (source): “White bread products, biscuits, scones, croissants, flour and corn tortillas, muffins, fry bread, hush puppies, corn bread, corn muffins, highly fortified cereals, cold cereals that are low in fiber, pizza, burritos,” etc.
  • Certain types of meats (source): “Fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb...spare ribs, organ meats (liver, kidney), and processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, cold cuts, bacon)”; (Note: the source article also notes that preparation is as important as cut selection when it comes to meat: “Trim all visible fat before cooking. Don't fry or braise meat; instead, roast, broil, or bake it on a rack so that fat can drip away. If you use meat in a stew, be sure to skim off the fat before serving.”)
  • Deep-fried foods (source): “Conventional frying methods create trans fats, a type of fat shown to raise the bad type of cholesterol and lower the good kind.”
  • Candy and sugary beverages (source): “Chronic high blood sugar levels (associated with uncontrolled diabetes and other conditions) lead to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, and are associated with heart disease and heart failure.”
  • Oils (source): Palm oil, coconut oil

You should also stick to dietary recommendations around sodium (under 2,300 milligrams per day for adults); as the CDC points out, “Excess sodium can increase your blood pressure and your risk for a heart disease and stroke.”

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