HEART DISEASE IS THE leading cause of death in the U.S. for men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 647,000 people in the U.S. die of heart disease annually. That toll accounts for 1 in every 4 deaths.
According to the American Heart Association's Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics – 2020 Update, approximately 80% of cardiovascular disease can be prevented with an array of measures, including eating a healthy diet. Maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in physical activity, controlling high blood pressure and keeping cholesterol levels in check are other good strategies for avoiding cardiovascular disease.
Consuming healthy, nutritious foods can cut down on some of these risk factors, like obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol, says Danielle McClure, a registered dietitian with the Texas Health Finley Ewing Fitness Center in Dallas. "Foods that are heart-healthy have an effect on cholesterol in your blood," McClure says. "Healthy (HDL) cholesterol helps clear our vessels and problematic (LDL) cholesterol can clog them."
In general, eating plenty of plant-based foods is a good strategy for protecting your heart health, says Kate Patton, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic. "We have strong evidence that inclusion of plant-based whole foods and limiting your intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease," Patton says.
Here are eight incredibly heart-healthy foods:
- Dark chocolate.
- Extra-virgin olive oil.
- Fatty fish.
- Seeds and nuts.
- Colorful vegetables and fruits.
Dark chocolate. If you want to indulge in a treat that's good for your heart, try dark chocolate, Jones says. Cocoa beans are high in flavanols, which research has linked to reduced blood pressure and improved heart health. "The higher the percentage of cocoa, the better," she says.
Extra virgin olive oil. Plenty of research suggests that olive oil – which is a key part of the Mediterranean diet – is good for your heart and provides other health benefits. There are several kinds of olive oil, and extra virgin is the healthiest, McClure says. Extra virgin olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat and polyphenols, a combination that helps lower inflammation and acts as an antioxidant. "Throw out your creamy salad dressing and swap in extra virgin olive oil mixed with your favorite vinegar or lemon juice," she says. "Replace bread and butter with bread and extra virgin olive oil."
Fatty fish. Salmon, sardines and mackerel contain healthy fats that can improve heart health, McClure says. Try to consume 8 ounces of fatty fish a week to ensure you get enough of these heart-healthy substances.
Legumes. Beans, lentils and split peas are all legumes, which are heart-healthy and provide other health benefits. "The main heart protective benefit they provide is they contain protein with zero animal fat," McClure says. "By substituting plant protein you can decrease your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol." Legumes are also a good source of fiber, which helps lower cholesterol.
Seeds and nuts. Research suggests that consuming seeds and nuts can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Eating a diet that emphasizes higher intakes of plant protein rather than from meat was associated with better cardiovascular heath, according to a study published in 2018 in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Consuming a small portion of seeds and nuts – about 1.5 ounces a day – may help reduce your cardiovascular risk by up to 30%, McClure says.
Colorful fresh vegetables and fruits. All fresh vegetables and fruits are heart-healthy, since they have no cholesterol. Colorful veggies and fruits are particularly good for your ticker, because they're chock full of heart-healthy carotenoids, fiber and vitamins. To safeguard your heart, consume colorful veggies like red peppers and fruits like summer squash and pumpkin.
Popcorn. Stove-cooked popcorn is a great heart-healthy snack, provided you cook it in olive oil instead of butter, Jones says. Popcorn is a whole grain, high in fiber and antioxidants. "Add some cinnamon to sweeten it and you have the perfect snack," she says.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
There are an array of risk factors for heart disease.
Heart disease risk factors include:
- High cholesterol.
- A family history of heart disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Lack of physical activity.