American Heart Month: Add these heart-healthy foods recommended by experts to your grocery list
February is American Heart Month. Of course, it’s a good idea to eat a nutrient-dense diet year-round — but this month, here are some foods that are especially a boon for your cardiovascular health.
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, the cost of treating cardiovascular via health care services and other medicines is approximately hundreds of billions per year.
Hundreds of thousands of individuals die from heart disease annually, with one person dying every 34 seconds, according to the CDC. Some of the leading lifestyle factors for the disease include obesity, lack of physical exercise and an unhealthy diet.
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Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, and other foods, such as poultry, are the backbone of a healthy diet to avoid cardiovascular illness. In early February, across the United States, individuals wear red on National Wear Red Day to highlight the importance of combating heart disease.
- Dark leafy greens
- Olive Oil
- Whole grains
1. Dark leafy greens
It’s time to load up on spinach, kale, collard greens and other dark, leafy greens.
This recommendation comes from Isa Kujawski, MPH, RDN, founder of Mea Nutrition LLC, who after serving for over 10 years of active duty in the Navy and losing her veteran brother to suicide dedicated her career to helping people use food as medicine.
“Dark leafy greens are a powerhouse of beneficial nutrients, including fiber, micronutrients and bioactive plant compounds known as phytochemicals,” said Kujawski, citing a 2018 scientific review paper published in Nutrients.
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“These nutrients presumably protect against cardiovascular disease by various mechanisms, including altering gene expression, regulating blood pressure, and lowering inflammation in the body,” she added.
“Myriad studies have demonstrated the association between intake of dark leafy greens and lower risk of cardiovascular disease.”
2. Olive oil
Erin Kenney, MS, RD, LDN, HCP, CPT, registered dietitian and CEO of Nutrition Rewired, is all about incorporating olive oil to your diet to keep your ticker happy.
“Olive oil consumption, specifically the extra-virgin, is associated with reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and mortality in individuals at high cardiovascular risk,” she said.
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“Olive oil is rich in healthful antioxidants, polyphenols and vitamins, and is a good source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats,” she continued, adding that to get the most benefits from olive oil, avoid heating the oil and instead use it in a salad or add it to a homemade hummus.
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In case you needed another excuse to eat more guacamole, here it is. Avocados are high in monounsaturated fats, according to Amy Adams, RDN, LDN.
“Monounsaturated fats increase our LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) clearance rate, meaning our body gets rid of them faster. Higher LDL levels can be detrimental because LDL brings cholesterol to the heart,” she explained.
“One study done by the Journal of the American Heart Association found that overweight/obese individuals who consumed more avocados had the ability to significantly lower their LDL cholesterol when compared to overweight/obese individuals who ate a low-fat or moderate-fat diet.”
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Echoing Adams, Kenney said that adding an avocado to your daily diet may help lower bad cholesterol, in turn reducing risk for heart disease, according to health researchers at Penn State.
“Avocado contains healthy monounsaturated fats in addition to potassium and magnesium, both of which help to maintain a healthy blood pressure,” she said.
“Berries, such as blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are high in fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients, all of which work to lower oxidative stress and inflammation in the body,” said Kujawski, pointing to a 2010 study in Nutrition Reviews. “These processes improve blood pressure, vascular function, and fight free radical formation. Consequently, clinical studies have shown that berries contribute to lower cardiovascular disease risk.”
“Blueberries have been singled out as being a standout food when it comes to improving heart health.”
Kristi Ruth, RD, LDN, Carrotsandcookies.com, stressed the importance of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables in general to improve heart health.
“This will increase your intake of fiber and a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and more,” she said.
“Still, blueberries have been singled out as being a standout food when it comes to improving heart health,” she continued, noting they are high in antioxidants, including anthocyanin, which is a flavonoid, a group of phytonutrients or plant chemicals that are incredible for heart health.
“Beans are a heart healthy food which consist of fiber and a variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. They improve the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, inflammation, and promoting digestive wellness,” said Kujawski, highlighting research published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients.
“Beans are rich in soluble fiber, which acts as food to beneficial gut bacteria to promote a healthy gut flora, which is an important factor in overall heart health.”
Adams is also all in for Team Bean. “Beans contain plant sterols/stanols. Plant sterols/stanols work as active compounds in our body that are very similar in structure to cholesterol,” she explained.
“Consequently, plant sterols/stanols compete with cholesterol for absorption in the small intestine. Overall, this causes less cholesterol to build up in our bloodstream. One study showed that eating 2-4 grams of plant sterols/stanols per day can reduce cholesterol by 10%.”
“Salmon contains omega-3 fats which have been shown to significantly reduce the risk for sudden death caused by cardiac arrhythmias and all-cause mortality in patients with known coronary heart disease,” said Kenney.
“These essential fats help by reducing inflammation in the body. If you don’t like salmon, you may get the same benefits from a supplement based on a meta analysis that found fish oil omega‐3 supplements lowered risk for heart attack and death from coronary heart disease.”
Kenney recommended aiming for two to three servings of salmon or other high-fat fish, like herring, anchovies or mackerel, per week.
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7. Whole grains
Think barley, oatmeal, brown rice, millet, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, and more.
“While refined carbohydrates get a bad reputation for their negative impact on health and increased risk of heart disease, whole grains have the opposite impact,” said Kristin Gillespie, MS, RD, LD, adviser for Exercisewithstyle.com.
“These grains, which are incredibly nutritious as they contain all parts of the grain, are heart protective. Many studies have demonstrated a relationship between whole grain consumption and heart health.”
“Grape skins contain resveratrol, a powerful polyphenol. Polyphenols are compounds found in plants, which have been shown to benefit the human body. More specifically, resveratrol is part of the stilbenoid family. Stilbenoids are a natural compound produced by certain plants in response to injury. The purpose of stilbenoids is to protect the plant,” said Adams.
“Similarly, resveratrol has been shown to protect the cardiovascular system,” Adams added. “Several studies have determined that heart disease can be linked to oxidative stress, inflammation, and endothelial damage. Resveratrol has been shown to reduce oxidative stress, stimulate endothelial production of nitric oxide, and inhibit vascular inflammation.”
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These crunchy, mildly sweet nuts are a boon for heart health.
“Out of all nuts, walnuts are special because they have the highest percent of omega 6, omega 3, and polyunsaturated fats which are cardioprotective,” said Adams.
“One study done by The New England Journal of Medicine evaluated whether walnuts consumption affected lipid levels and blood pressure. During the study, 18 healthy men in two different diets, with one group having 20% of their calories coming from walnuts. Each diet was followed for a total of four weeks. In conclusion, participants consuming more walnuts reduced total levels of cholesterol by 12.4%, reduced LDL (or ‘bad’ cholesterol) by 16.3%.”
Walnuts are also a research-backed food to support cognition and brain health.
Flaxsed is “one of the richest plant sources of omega-3 fat(ALA), which is excellent for heart health,” said Ruth, citing research in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology.
She also commented that flaxseed is high in fiber and lignans (a phytochemical), and that both of those things are thought to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Thanks to the fiber content, flaxseed is helpful with digestion, too.