The first American Heart Month was celebrated in February, 1964, and has been celebrated annually ever since to bring awareness to cardiovascular diseases in the United States (US). Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death, accounting for one in every four deaths in the US each year.
Included under the umbrella of cardiovascular disease are diseases of the heart and blood vessels that can lead to heart attack and stroke. Disease risk can be mitigated by eating well, sleeping well, staying hydrated, getting plenty of exercise, and getting an annual physical.
Today we’d like to focus on the best “heart-healthy” foods to add to your diet, and why they are so beneficial.
Almonds contain a host of beneficial nutrients as well as “good fats,” which have been found to lower cholesterol levels. Almonds also contain fiber, vitamin E, minerals, and a variety of phytonutrients. Studies have found that eating tree nuts 2-3 times a week can decrease inflammation and improve blood vessel health, resulting in a 13-19% decreased risk for cardiovascular disease and 15-23% lower risk of coronary heart disease.
Avocados contain healthy fats and fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamins B6, C, E and folate, as well as other vitamins and minerals. These nutrients all play a role in keeping the cardiovascular system healthy. The antioxidant components help reduce inflammation, the healthy fats help increase the “good” HDL cholesterol and decrease levels of plaque-building “bad” LDL cholesterol, and the magnesium and potassium are beneficial for regulating blood pressure.
Magnesium is also considered an alkalinizing mineral, helping the body to neutralize its metabolic acid production. Check your urine pH to see if you may need to increase your magnesium intake.
Beans and Lentils contain high amounts of resistant starch. Resistant starch is any carbohydrate that resists digestion in the small intestine and goes on to ferment in the large intestine as it moves through. The fermentation products (fiber) act as prebiotics, feeding the good bacteria in the gut. The fiber also helps decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol. Eating legumes has also been associated with a reduction in blood pressure and inflammation.
Berries contain B vitamins, vitamin C, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants such as anthocyanins, resveratrol, and ellagic acid. These antioxidants reduce oxidative stress and help protect cells from free radical damage. Berries also have strong anti-inflammatory properties, which helps decrease the risk of heart (and other) disease and help improve vascular endothelial function. Studies have also shown that berries help to lower LDL cholesterol as well as prevent it from becoming oxidized (a major risk factor for heart disease).
Garlic contains nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin B6 and manganese, and also contains sulfur-based compounds including allicin. Allicin is produced when garlic is chopped, minced, or diced and may help to lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. A recent review study mentioned garlic’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and lipid-lowering activity and suggested areas for further study.
Hemp Seeds like avocados mentioned above, contain magnesium which can help regulate blood pressure. They also contain omega-3 and -6 fatty acids at the ideal 3:1 ratio to promote heart health. Linoleic acid in hemp seeds has been shown to decrease cholesterol levels and may decrease blood pressure. The gamma-linolenic acid may also be anti-inflammatory.
Leafy Green vegetables such as spinach and kale contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Vitamin K in green leafy vegetables helps make proteins needed for blood clotting, but also helps reduce arterial stiffness and reduce coronary artery disease. Leafy greens also contain dietary nitrates which help to relax blood vessels, reduce blood pressure, and promote overall circulation.
Oranges contain pectin, which has been shown to bind cholesterol in the gut, preventing it from being absorbed into the bloodstream. Most of the pectin in an orange can be found in the pulp, pith, and peel, so eating the fruit is preferable to simply drinking the juice. Oranges also contain potassium, which can help regulate blood pressure.
Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants that can help lower blood pressure and lower risk of heart disease. However, chocolate is often loaded with added sugars and fats that counteract its healthy benefits. Unsweetened organic chocolate or cocoa powder have all of the benefit without the added fats and sugars. Check out our Heart-Healthy Fruit and Nut Bark recipe, which incorporates almonds, berries, hemp seeds, and unsweetened chocolate from this list, and enjoy in moderation.
Wild-Caught Salmon contains the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, as well as protein, vitamin B12, and other vitamins and minerals. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “essential” fats that must come from the diet as the body cannot create them. EPA and DHA can help reduce inflammation throughout the body, improve arterial cell function, reduce cholesterol, and lower blood pressure, all contributing to heart and blood vessel health. We recommend eating one serving of wild line-caught salmon per week, and to be sure the eyes are clear when selecting your fish.
Be sure to make most if not all of these top 10 heart-healthy foods a part of your regular diet.