8 Foods To Include in a Heart-Healthy Diet
Most everyone has felt the impact of cardiovascular disease and related issues in some way — either personally or through a friend or family member who has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or has experienced a heart attack or stroke.
More than 18 million Americans are living with cardiovascular disease, and one out of every four deaths in the United States each year is caused by it. Another 116 million have hypertension, or high blood pressure, and 94 million have high cholesterol (over 200 mg/dL).
While there are risk factors that are out of our control, there are a number of measures we can take, including dietary changes, to help support heart health and reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease.
Essential nutrients for heart health
Since the 1960s, the Mediterranean-style diet has been studied as an intervention to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It has consistently been found to improve cardiovascular health while reducing cardiovascular disease, the rate of coronary heart disease, and ischemic stroke.
It's no surprise that some of the key nutrients recommended for heart health — such as fiber, folic acid, monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and potassium — are also abundant in a Mediterranean-style diet.
Here, we look at why these nutrients are important and provide some of the best ways to get them from food.
Research shows that consuming high amounts of dietary fiber has been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease. Fiber is also key to reducing inflammation, which studies indicate as a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease.
Folic acid (folate) is a B vitamin that is essential to the body’s creation of healthy new cells. Studies found that cardiovascular patients who received folic acid therapy had a significantly reduced risk of stroke.
Monounsaturated fats have been studied for their effect on cholesterol, and have been shown to reduce LDL (unhealthy cholesterol) without also reducing HDL (healthy cholesterol). They are recommended as a replacement for saturated and trans fats. In the form of oil, monounsaturated fats remain liquid at room temperature, but begin to solidify when refrigerated. Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, avocados, peanut butter, and many other nuts and seeds are sources of monounsaturated fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a key component in the cell structure of every cell in our bodies. Studies also indicate that they have a strong influence on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. There are three types of omega-3s that are considered beneficial for cardiovascular health: α-linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). ALA is most commonly found in plant-based foods, while DHA and EPA are most commonly found in foods from the ocean.
Potassium helps regulate our heartbeat and the amount of fluid in our cells, plays a role in keeping our muscles and nerves functioning properly, and is essential for synthesizing protein and metabolizing carbohydrates. Research indicates that there is a relationship between increased potassium intake and heart health. For every 1,000 mg daily increase in potassium, the risk of cardiovascular disease decreased by 18%.
8 foods to include in a heart-healthy diet
One whole avocado provides approximately 5 g of fiber and is a good source of monounsaturated fat and vitamins E, K, B6, and C. Further, a study from Penn State University found that eating an avocado each day lowered LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease.
Low in carbohydrates, high in plant-based protein, high in fiber, high in potassium, and high in folate, broccoli is a cardiovascular superstar. One cup of cooked broccoli contains 550 mg of potassium and 14% of the recommended daily value of folate (57.3 mcg). Additionally, broccoli is a good source of vitamins and minerals, providing a major boost of vitamins C and K.
Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and herring are some of the best whole food sources available to boost omega-3s, specifically EPA. Research indicates that individuals who consumed fatty fish two to three times each week saw a 50% reduction in risk of death from coronary heart disease and a 30% reduction in risk of death from heart attack as compared to those who did not consume fatty fish.
Packed with fiber, essential vitamins and nutrients, and plant-based protein, legumes are known to be nutritional powerhouses,. Lima beans may be among the best legumes for heart health — just one cup of cooked lima beans has 969 mg potassium and 9 g of fiber.
Olive oil is a staple in any Mediterranean diet, and studies show that those who consume more than half of a tablespoon of olive oil daily are 15% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease. A good source of monounsaturated fat and ALA omega-3 fatty acids, olive oil should be included in any heart-healthy diet.
With 8 g of fiber and 186 mg of potassium in a one cup serving, raspberries are powerful antioxidants. The anthocyanins and ellagitannins that produce the berries’ beautiful red hue provide a powerful phytochemical studied for its anti-inflammatory properties and potential for cardiovascular protection.
With 839 mg of potassium and 263 mcg of folate in one cup of cooked spinach, this leafy green packs a heart-healthy punch. In fact, one study found that adults who ate one cup of raw or one-half cup of cooked spinach daily were 26% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
Walnuts provide an excellent plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids and contain monounsaturated fat. They have been shown to reduce LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol and a recent study found that they reduced six out of 10 blood inflammatory markers by up to 11.5%.
Daily habits to improve heart health
In addition to making healthy choices with our nutrition, these three daily habits have been shown to improve cardiovascular health.
Exercise 30 minutes each day
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines on exercise and hypertension recommend at least 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity each day, with a focus on endurance or aerobic exercise supplemented with resistance training for the greatest benefit in the prevention and management of heart disease.
Include meditation or deep breathing to reduce stress
Stress causes an increase in heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. In an acute bout of stress, these physiological responses are healthy. However, when stress becomes chronic, these extended physiological responses become a threat to cardiovascular health. Additionally, chronic stress can cause a decrease in blood flow to the heart, resulting in increased levels of the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. If left untreated over time, this can lead to heart disease.
Meditation has been used for thousands of years as a way to calm the mind and the body. Research indicates that it is an effective tool for stress relief and good mental hygiene. Further, studies suggest that meditation may provide cardiovascular benefits through blood pressure reduction.
Get a good night’s sleep
Disturbances in sleep have been linked to increased instances of neurological issues, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
An estimated 35% of Americans get less than the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep each night. Prioritizing rest and implementing proper nutrition, exercise, and meditation are all recommended strategies for improving the duration and quality of sleep and, in turn, improving cardiovascular health.
Julie Floyd Jones is an Atlanta, Georgia based Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Yoga Instructor. Julie is the Program Director for Excellence in Exercise where she works with corporate partners to provide wellness solutions for employees globally. She is the founder of Training & Champagning Curated and Thrive.