Food

15 Incredibly Heart-Healthy Foods

As new evidence emerges, the link between diet and heart disease grows stronger.

Photo Credit: udra11/Shutterstock

Heart disease accounts for nearly one-third of all deaths worldwide (1).

Diet plays a major role in heart health and can impact your risk of heart disease.

In fact, certain foods can influence blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol levels and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.

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This article takes an in-depth look at 15 foods that you should be eating to maximize your heart health.

Leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale and collard greens are well-known for their wealth of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

In particular, they’re a great source of vitamin K, which helps protect your arteries and promote proper blood clotting (23).

They’re also high in dietary nitrates, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure, decrease arterial stiffness and improve the function of cells lining the blood vessels (4).

Some studies have also found a link between increasing your intake of leafy green vegetables and a lower risk of heart disease.

One analysis of eight studies found that increasing leafy green vegetable intake was associated with up to a 16% lower incidence of heart disease (5).

Another study in 29,689 women showed that a high intake of leafy green vegetables was linked to a significantly lower risk of coronary heart disease (6).

SUMMARY: Leafy green vegetables are high in vitamin K and nitrates, which can help reduce blood pressure and improve arterial function. Studies show that a higher intake of leafy greens is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

Whole grains include all three nutrient-rich parts of the grain: germ, endosperm and bran.

Common types of whole grains include whole wheat, brown rice, oats, rye, barley, buckwheat and quinoa.

Compared to refined grains, whole grains are higher in fiber, which may help reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease (789).

Multiple studies have found that including more whole grains in your diet can benefit your heart health.

One analysis of 45 studies concluded that eating three more servings of whole grains daily was associated with a 22% lower risk of heart disease (10).

Similarly, another study found that eating at least three servings of whole grains significantly decreased systolic blood pressure by 6 mmHg, which is enough to reduce the risk of stroke by about 25% (11).

When purchasing whole grains, make sure to read the ingredients label carefully. Phrases like “whole grain” or “whole wheat” indicate a whole-grain product, while words like “wheat flour” or “multigrain” may not.

SUMMARY: Studies show that eating whole grains is associated with lower cholesterol and systolic blood pressure, as well as a lower risk of heart disease.

Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are jam-packed with important nutrients that play a central role in heart health.

Berries are also rich in antioxidants like anthocyanins, which protect against the oxidative stress and inflammation that contribute to the development of heart disease (12).

Studies show that eating lots of berries can reduce several risk factors for heart disease.

For example, one study in 27 adults with metabolic syndrome showed that drinking a beverage made of freeze-dried strawberries for eight weeks decreased “bad” LDL cholesterol by 11% (13).

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions associated with a higher risk of heart disease.

Another study found that eating blueberries daily improved the function of cells that line the blood vessels, which help control blood pressure and blood clotting (14).

Additionally, an analysis of 22 studies showed that eating berries was associated with reductions in “bad” LDL cholesterol, systolic blood pressure, body mass index and certain markers of inflammation (15).

Berries can be a satisfying snack or delicious low-calorie dessert. Try adding a few different types to your diet to take advantage of their unique health benefits.

SUMMARY: Berries are rich in antioxidants. Studies show that eating them can reduce multiple risk factors for heart disease.

Avocados are an excellent source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, which have been linked to reduced levels of cholesterol and a lower risk of heart disease (16).

One study looked at the effects of three cholesterol-lowering diets in 45 overweight and obese people, with one of the test groups consuming one avocado per day.

The avocado group experienced reductions in “bad” LDL cholesterol, including lower levels of small, dense LDL cholesterol, which are believed to significantly raise the risk of heart disease (17).

Another study including 17,567 people showed that those who ate avocados regularly were half as likely to have metabolic syndrome (18).

Avocados are also rich in potassium, a nutrient that’s essential to heart health. In fact, just one avocado supplies 975 milligrams of potassium, or about 28% of the amount that you need in a day (19).

Getting at least 4.7 grams of potassium per day can decrease blood pressure by an average of 8.0/4.1 mmHg, which is associated with a 15% lower risk of stroke (20).

SUMMARY: Avocados are high in monounsaturated fats and potassium. They may help lower your cholesterol, blood pressure and risk of metabolic syndrome.

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which have been studied extensively for their heart-health benefits.

In one study in 324 people, eating salmon three times a week for eight weeks significantly decreased diastolic blood pressure (21).

Another study showed that eating fish over the long term was linked to lower levels of total cholesterol, blood triglycerides, fasting blood sugar and systolic blood pressure.

Additionally, each 3.5-ounce (100-gram) decrease in weekly fish consumption was associated with a 19% higher likelihood of having one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity (22).

If you don’t eat much seafood, fish oil is another option for getting your daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids.

Fish oil supplements have been shown to reduce blood triglycerides, improve arterial function and decrease blood pressure (23242526).

Other omega-3 supplements like krill oil or algal oil are popular alternatives.

SUMMARY: Fatty fish and fish oil are both high in omega-3 fatty acids and may help reduce heart disease risk factors, including blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol.

Walnuts are a great source of fiber and micronutrients like magnesium, copper and manganese (27).

Research shows that incorporating a few servings of walnuts in your diet can help protect against heart disease.

According to one review, eating walnuts can reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol by up to 16%, lower diastolic blood pressure by 2–3 mm Hg and decrease oxidative stress and inflammation (28).

Another study in 365 participants showed that diets supplemented with walnuts led to greater decreases in LDL and total cholesterol (29).

Interestingly, some studies have also found that regularly eating nuts such as walnuts is associated with a lower risk of heart disease (3031).

SUMMARY: Studies suggest that walnuts can help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure and may be associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

Beans contain resistant starch, which resists digestion and is fermented by the beneficial bacteria in your gut (32).

According to some animal studies, resistant starch can improve heart health by decreasing blood levels of triglycerides and cholesterol (333435).

Multiple studies have also found that eating beans can reduce certain risk factors for heart disease.

In one study in 16 people, eating pinto beans reduced levels of blood triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol (36).

One review of 26 studies also found that a diet high in beans and legumes significantly decreased levels of LDL cholesterol (37).

What’s more, eating beans has been linked to reduced blood pressure and inflammation, both of which are risk factors for heart disease (38).

SUMMARY: Beans are high in resistant starch and have been shown to reduce levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, lower blood pressure and decrease inflammation.

Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants like flavonoids, which can help boost heart health.

Interestingly, several studies have associated eating chocolate with a lower risk of heart disease.

One large study showed that those who ate chocolate at least five times per week had a 57% lower risk of coronary heart disease than non-chocolate eaters (39).

Another study found that eating chocolate at least twice per week was associated with a 32% lower risk of having calcified plaque in the arteries (40).

Keep in mind that these studies show an association but don’t necessarily account for other factors that may be involved.

Additionally, chocolate can be high in sugar and calories, which can negate many of its health-promoting properties.

Be sure to pick a high-quality dark chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 70%, and moderate your intake to make the most of its heart-healthy benefits.

SUMMARY: Dark chocolate is high in antioxidants like flavonoids. It has been associated with a lower risk of developing calcified plaque in the arteries and coronary heart disease.

Tomatoes are loaded with lycopene, a natural plant pigment with powerful antioxidant properties (41).

Antioxidants help neutralize harmful free radicals, preventing oxidative damage and inflammation, both of which can contribute to heart disease.

Low blood levels of lycopene are linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke (4243).

One review of 25 studies showed that a high intake of foods rich in lycopene was associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke (44).

Another study in 50 overweight women found that eating two raw tomatoes four times per week increased levels of “good” HDL cholesterol (45).

Higher levels of HDL cholesterol can help remove excess cholesterol and plaque from the arteries to keep your heart healthy and protect against heart disease and stroke (46).

SUMMARY: Tomatoes are rich in lycopene and have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as an increase in “good” HDL cholesterol.

Almonds are incredibly nutrient-dense, boasting a long list of vitamins and minerals that are crucial to heart health.

They’re also a good source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and fiber, two important nutrients that can help protect against heart disease (47).

Research suggests that eating almonds can have a powerful effect on your cholesterol levels, too.

One study in 48 people with high cholesterol showed that eating 1.5 ounces (43 grams) of almonds daily for six weeks reduced belly fat and levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, two risk factors for heart disease (48).

Another small study had similar findings, reporting that eating almonds for four weeks resulted in significant decreases in both LDL and total cholesterol (49).

Research also shows that eating almonds is associated with higher levels of HDL cholesterol, which can help reduce plaque buildup and keep your arteries clear (5051).

Remember that while almonds are very high in nutrients, they’re also high in calories. Measure your portions and moderate your intake if you’re trying to lose weight.

SUMMARY: Almonds are high in fiber and monounsaturated fats, and have been linked to reductions in cholesterol and belly fat.

Chia seeds, flaxseeds and hemp seeds are all great sources of heart-healthy nutrients, including fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.

Numerous studies have found that adding these types of seeds to your diet can improve many heart disease risk factors, including inflammation, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides.

For example, hemp seeds are high in arginine, an amino acid that has been associated with reduced blood levels of certain inflammatory markers (52).

Furthermore, flaxseed may help keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels under control.

One study showed that giving flax to people with high blood pressure decreased systolic blood pressure by an average of 10 mmHg and reduced diastolic blood pressure by 7 mmHg (53).

In one study of 17 people, eating bread made with flaxseed was shown to reduce total cholesterol by 7% and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 9% (54).

Although more research is needed about the effects of chia seeds on heart health in humans, one study in rats found that eating chia seeds lowered blood triglyceride levels and boosted levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol (55).

SUMMARY: Human and animal studies have found that eating seeds may improve several heart disease risk factors, including inflammation, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides.

For centuries, garlic has been used as a natural remedy to treat a variety of ailments.

In recent years, research has confirmed its potent medicinal properties and found that garlic can even help improve heart health.

This is thanks to the presence of a compound called allicin, which is believed to have a multitude of therapeutic effects (56).

In one study, taking garlic extract in doses of 600–1,500 mg daily for 24 weeks was as effective as a common prescription drug at reducing blood pressure (57).

One review compiled the results of 39 studies and found that garlic can reduce total cholesterol by an average of 17 mg/dL and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 9 mg/dL in those with high cholesterol (58).

Other studies have found that garlic extract can inhibit platelet buildup, which may reduce the risk of blood clots and stroke (5960).

Be sure to consume garlic raw, or crush it and let it sit for a few minutes before cooking. This allows for the formation of allicin, maximizing its potential health benefits.

SUMMARY: Garlic and its components have been shown to help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. They may also help inhibit blood clot formation.

A staple in the Mediterranean diet, the heart-healthy benefits of olive oil are well documented.

Olive oil is packed with antioxidants, which can relieve inflammation and decrease the risk of chronic disease (6162).

It’s also rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, and many studies have associated it with improvements in heart health.

In fact, one study in 7,216 adults at high risk for heart disease showed that those who consumed the most olive oil had a 35% lower risk of developing heart disease.

Furthermore, a higher intake of olive oil was associated with a 48% lower risk of dying from heart disease (63).

Another large study also showed that a higher intake of olive oil was associated with lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure (64).

Take advantage of the many benefits of olive oil by drizzling it over cooked dishes or adding it to vinaigrettes and sauces.

SUMMARY: Olive oil is high in antioxidants and monounsaturated fats. It has been associated with lower blood pressure and heart disease risk.

Edamame is an immature soybean frequently found in Asian cuisine.

Like other soy products, edamame is rich in soy isoflavones, a type of flavonoid that may help lower cholesterol levels and improve heart health.

One analysis of 11 studies showed that soy isoflavones reduced total cholesterol by 3.9 mg/dL and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 5 mg/dL (65).

Another analysis showed that 50 grams of soy protein per day decreased LDL cholesterol by an average of 3% (66).

If combined with other changes to diet and lifestyle, even slightly reducing your cholesterol levels can have a big impact on your risk of heart disease.

One study showed that decreasing total cholesterol levels by just 10% was associated with a 15% lower risk of dying from coronary heart disease (67).

In addition to its isoflavone content, edamame is a good source of other heart-healthy nutrients, including dietary fiber and antioxidants (6869).

SUMMARY: Edamame contains soy isoflavones, which have been shown to help decrease cholesterol levels. Edamame also contains fiber and antioxidants, which can also benefit heart health.

Green tea has been associated with a number of health benefits, from increased fat burning to improved insulin sensitivity (7071).

It’s also brimming with polyphenols and catechins, which can act as antioxidants to prevent cell damage, reduce inflammation and protect the health of your heart.

According to one review of 20 studies, a higher intake of green tea catechins was associated with significantly lower levels of LDL and total cholesterol (72).

What’s more, an analysis including 1,367 people showed that green tea decreased both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (73).

Another small study found that taking green tea extract for three months reduced blood pressure, triglycerides, LDL and total cholesterol, compared to a placebo (74).

Taking a green tea supplement or drinking matcha, a beverage that is similar to green tea but made with the whole tea leaf, may also benefit heart health.

SUMMARY: Green tea is high in polyphenols and catechins. It has been associated with lower cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure.

As new evidence emerges, the link between diet and heart disease grows stronger.

What you put on your plate can influence just about every aspect of heart health, from blood pressure and inflammation to cholesterol levels and triglycerides.

Including these heart-healthy foods as part of a nutritious, well-balanced diet can help keep your heart in good shape and minimize your risk of heart disease.

This article was originally published by Healthline. Reprinted with permission.

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Rachael Link is a registered dietitian currently working with veterans in New York City.