The Heart Healthy Diet
Your heart does a pretty remarkable job at keeping you alive; it’s only right to nourish it with healthy foods. But keeping your heart vital and strong is more than just ditching the French fries and highly refined chow; it’s about filling up on wholefoods, plenty of fruit and veggies, and healthy fats – foods that reduce blood pressure, help control blood sugar, improve cholesterol, keep you trim, and thereby support your heart. Pump up your heart health with this smorgasbord of goodness.
As far as heart health goes, there’s no better food than oats. Small but incredibly mighty, this wholegrain works wonders at reducing cholesterol in the body. Oats are a rich source of soluble fibre, which – when ingested – binds with your bile acids to help digest your food. Since your body uses cholesterol to produce bile acids, that morning bowl of fibrous porridge kicks ‘bad’ cholesterol ass and eliminates it from the body. An analysis of 45 studies found that eating three or more portions of whole grains, like oats, daily reduced the risk of heart disease by 22%i. Beyond traditional porridge, there are plenty of ways to cram more of these little guys into your diet: add a spoonful of oat bran to your post-gym smoothie, munch on a homemade oatmeal cookie at elevenses, or sprinkle a handful of rolled oats into pancake batter.
Dark leafy greens
“Eat your greens” – it’s advice we hear time and again, and for good reason. Kale, spinach, Swiss chard, peas, and salad greens have been widely touted for their abundance of heart-healthy nutrients. Not only are they rich in vitamins A, C, E, and K – powerful nutrients that protect the heart from destructive toxins – but they contain tons of magnesium, calcium, and potassium, too, which play an important role in blood pressure management. Better still, greens pack a small calorific punch; one cup of spinach delivers a meagre 7 calories, making it a powerful weapon for weight control, which – we might add – is critical for heart health. Added bonus: greens are chock-full of fibre, reducing cholesterol and helping you feel fuller for longer, so pile your plate high!
Creamy, buttery, versatile – yup, it’s the king of all fruits: the avocado. No ‘healthy’ diet is complete without some avo goodness, especially if you’re eating with your heart in mind. Avocados are a brilliant source of monounsaturated fats, which have shown immense promise in eliminating ‘bad’ cholesterol and lowering the risk of heart disease. One study assessed the impact of three diets on the cholesterol of 45 overweight and obese individuals, with one regimen consisting of eating an avocado a dayii. Unsurprisingly, the avocado group exhibited significant reductions in ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. That’s not all. Avocados are also teeming with potassium – an important mineral that helps reduce blood pressure. Forget an apple a day – an avocado a day seems to offer just as many health benefits, too.
These jewelled beauties are bursting with goodness for your heart. Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries are chock-full of powerful antioxidants called anthocyanidins, which defend your body against the destructive effects of free radicals (unstable molecules that wreak havoc with your cells, enzymes, and DNA). A growing body of research suggests regularly eating berries may improves blood flow and prevent the build up of plaque, thereby reducing the possibility of heart disease. A large study conducted by the University of East Anglia corroborated this. The analysis of 93,600 women aged between 25 and 45, over an 18-year period, found that eating three or more servings of blueberries and strawberries every week lowered the risk of heart attackiii. There’s no reason not to pack more berries into your diet: add these delights to smoothies, breakfast muffins, or your morning bowl of porridge for a double-whammy of heart-healthy goodness. Learn more about the power of anthocyanidins here.
A mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is a magic bullet for heart health. Not only is it jam-packed with antioxidants, but it’s also rich in monounsaturated fats, which reduce the ‘bad’ cholesterol and increase ‘good’ cholesterol in your body. In a study of more than 7,216 adults prone to heart disease, researchers revealed those who consumed the greatest amount of olive oil exhibited a 35% lower risk of developing heart diseaseiv. Enjoy this heart-healthy condiment by drizzling over dishes and adding to dressings. Watch not to overdo it, though; for all its qualities, olive oil is still teeming with calories, so use in moderation.
No heart-healthy list would be complete without nuts, in particular, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, flaxseed, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, and walnuts. Nuts are rich in magnesium, potassium, and omega-3 fatty acids that are known to reduce blood pressure. According to one study, chomping down on walnuts can reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol by up to 16%, decrease oxidative stress, and lower blood pressure by 2-3mm Hgv. Whew! Some studies also suggest regular consumption of nuts is associated with a lower risk of heart diseasevi. When the afternoon slump strikes, forget nose-diving into that packet of crisps; go for a handful of heart-healthy nuts instead.
Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial to keep your heart ticking over, making oily fish, like salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines and trout, a staple of a heart-healthy diet. Nutritionists wax lyrical about omega-3’s thanks to them lowering blood pressure, keeping blood vessels healthy, improving arterial function, maintaining normal heart rhythm, reducing inflammation, and preventing blood from clottingvii. (Impressive, or what?) In a study of 324 people, researchers found eating salmon three times a week, over an eight-week period, was associated with reduced diastolic blood pressureviii. To give your heart the ultimate health hug, aim for 2-3 portions of oily fish per week.
A little surprised to see beets mentioned here? Don’t be. 'These purple powerhouses are one of the best sources of betalains. Potent antioxidants with impressive anti-inflammatory credentials, betalains have been at the centre of emerging research on how they could be used to support conditions caused by inflammation, such as heart failureix.'Beets are brimming with nitric oxide, too – a compound that’s known to open blood vessels and reduce blood pressure. A study of Australian women and men discovered drinking 2.5 cups of beetroot juice effectively lowered systolic blood pressure within six hoursx. Time to change up your morning glass of OJ, perhaps?
Aune, A., Keum, N., Giovannucci, E., Fadnes, L.T., Boffetta, P., Greenwood, D.C., Tonstad, S., Vatten, L.J.,Riboli, E., Norat, T. (2016). Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 353.
Wang, L., Bordi, P., Fleming, J., Hill, A., Kris-Etherton, P. (2015). Effect of a Moderate Fat Diet With and Without Avocados on Lipoprotein Particle Number, Size and Subclasses in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Journal of the American Heart Association, 4(1).
Cassidy, A., Mukamal, K., Liu, L., Franz, M., Eliassen, A. & Rimm, E. (2013). High Anthocyanin Intake Is Associated With a Reduced Risk of Myocardial Infarction in Young and Middle-Aged Women. Circulation, 127(2), 188-196.
Guasch-Ferré, M., Hu, F., Martínez-González, M., Fitó, M., Bulló, M., Estruch, R., Ros, E., Corella, D., Recondo, J., Gómez-Gracia, E., Fiol, M., Lapetra, J., Serra-Majem, L., Muñoz, M., Pintó, X., Lamuela-Raventós, R., Basora, J., Buil-Cosiales, P., Sorlí, J., Ruiz-Gutiérrez, V., Martínez, J. & Salas-Salvadó, J. (2014). Olive oil intake and risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality in the Predimed Study. BMC Medicine, 12(1).
Kris-Etherton, P. (2014). Walnuts Decrease Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: A Summary of Efficacy and Biologic Mechanisms. The Journal of Nutrition, 144(4), 547S-554S.
Li, T.Y., Brennan, A.M., Wedick, N.M., Mantzoros, C., Rifai, N. & Hu, F.B. (2009). Regular consumption of nuts is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in women with type 2 diabetes. The Journal of nutrition, 139(7), 1333-8.
Nichols, P.D., Petrie, J. & Singh, S. (2010). Long-chain omega-3 oils-an update on sustainable sources. Nutrients, 2(6), 572-85.
Ramel, A., Martinez, J., Kiely, M., Bandarra, N. & Thorsdottir, I. (2010). Moderate consumption of fatty fish reduces diastolic blood pressure in overweight and obese European young adults during energy restriction. Nutrition, 26(2), 168-174.
Matsumori, A. (2008). Role of inflammation in heart failure. International Journal of Cardiology, 125, S10-S11.
Coles, L. & Clifton, P. (2012). Effect of beetroot juice on lowering blood pressure in free-living, disease-free adults: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Nutrition Journal, 11(1).
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Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.