We hate to be the bearer of grim news, but did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States? But don’t worry, there’s some good news: there are so many things you can do to reduce your risk, starting with cleaning up your diet with these best foods for your heart.
“Approximately 80% of heart illnesses are preventable with the right diet,” says Wendy Lord, RD, medical content author at Health Reporter. “If your diet is healthy, your heart is healthy.”
In fact, the American Heart Association recognizes a healthy diet as a key component in preventing and managing heart disease, and research has shown that these efforts can even reverse heart disease.
According to Lord, here’s how it works: Your body makes cholesterol from the food you eat. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — or “bad” cholesterol — can form artery-clogging plaque, whereas high-density lipoprotein (HDL) — or “good” cholesterol — helps remove that plaque.
The idea is to consume foods that lower LDL cholesterol levels while increasing HDL cholesterol. According to Lord, trans fats and saturated fats, found in many processed foods and animal products, are among the worst culprits. On the other hand, a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts can keep your ticker in tip-top shape.
With all that in mind, here are some foods to focus on for optimal heart health.
1. Fatty fish
Salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel are just a few examples of fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help increase the beneficial HDL cholesterol. Not only that, but omega-3s are also lower triglycerides, a type of fat that can increase your risk of heart disease when levels are too high, says Brookell White, MS, RD, the nutrition database curator with MyFitnessPal.
According to Lord, omega-3 fatty acids are helpful for preventing blood clots, controlling high blood pressure, keeping the blood vessels open, and reducing inflammation as well as LDL cholesterol.
“I recommend looking for seafood from Alaska because it’s guaranteed to be sustainably caught, and eating their natural diet in the wild ensures the fish have healthier omega-3 ratios than many farmed species,” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, founder of Street Smart Nutrition.
Not a fan of fish? Nuts and seeds as well as plant oils are also chock-full of these heart-healthy fatty acids.
In case you needed another reason to dig into some guacamole, it turns out that avocados are an excellent source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, fiber, potassium, and magnesium, and many other vitamins and minerals that support heart health, according to Krishna Dragan, RDN, Director of Nutritional Wellness at Nudj Health.
A large 2022 study found that people who ate at least two servings of avocados per week had a 16% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and 21% lower risk of heart attacks or related problems compared to people who rarely or never ate them.
To maximize the benefits for your heart, consider spreading some creamy avocado onto fiber-rich whole-grain toast, or tossing it into a kale salad.
According to Juliana Tamayo, RD, an editor for Fitness Clone, whole grains contain a special type of soluble fiber known as beta-glucan. Soluble fiber acts as a broom for your system, sweeping bad cholesterol out before your body can absorb it. A 2020 study found that participants who consumed 3 grams of beta-glucan daily for eight weeks reduced their levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol by 15%.
Plus, beta-glucan is an excellent source of antioxidants, which can help to ward off heart disease by neutralizing free radicals and keeping inflammation at bay.
According to a 2018 review, consuming more tree nuts — like walnuts — is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease-related events and death. Not only that, but specific risk factors linked to the development of cardiovascular disease — like dyslipidemia and hypertension — seem to also improve with regular tree nut consumption.
Walnuts are super rich in omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, Harbstreet says they have the highest level of alpha-linolenic acid (an essential omega-3 fatty acid) of any food, with 2.5 grams per one-ounce serving.
Also, Tamayo says they contain plant sterols that have a special superpower: since these compounds mimic cholesterol, your body ends up absorbing them instead of cholesterol.
Since excess sodium can increase your blood pressure, though, Tamayo highly recommends opting for unsalted or low-sodium walnuts.
By the way — almonds are an outstanding choice, too, thanks to their high levels of fiber and monounsaturated fats. In fact, a small 2015 study showed that when participants ate 1.5 ounces of almonds daily for six weeks, they reduced LDL cholesterol and belly fat — both of which are considered risk factors for heart disease.
According to Lord, 1 cup of cooked mushrooms has more potassium than a medium-sized banana. But that’s just one of the many ways in which mushrooms support heart health. Mushrooms are low in fat, contain no cholesterol, and are loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.
A 2018 review revealed that mushrooms contain nutrients that can reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, and prevent your arteries from hardening. In one of the studies, researchers examined people with type two diabetes who ate oyster mushrooms and showed significant decreases in blood pressure and cholesterol. They also seem to have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, as well as certain risk factors for this disease.
6. Black beans
“Black beans are a heart health superfood,” says Megan Wong, RD, a dietitian at AlgaeCal. “They’re one of the best food sources of soluble fiber, providing 5.4 grams per a 3/4 cup serving. This specific type of fiber becomes gel-like in the body, slowing down the digestion of food to help with blood sugar management, and helping to lower cholesterol levels.”
One 2014 review found that a diet high in beans significantly decreased levels of LDL cholesterol. Plus, research has linked bean consumption to reduced inflammation and blood pressure — two risk factors for heart disease.
It’s also worth mentioning that one serving of black beans packs a whopping 485 milligrams of potassium, according to Wong, which helps to lower blood pressure by balancing the harmful effects of excess sodium.
Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN, co-author of The Menopause Diet Plan, recommends choosing canned black beans with no added salt. Or, she suggests rinsing canned beans in water to reduce the sodium content by 40% or more.
You’re probably already well aware that spinach, and other dark leafy greens, are nutrient powerhouses. But when it comes to heart health, they have some especially beneficial vitamins, minerals, and other compounds.
For example, spinach is a phenomenal source of vitamin K, which helps to protect your arteries.
“Spinach supplies nitrates, compounds that the body converts to nitric oxide to promote blood flow and normalize blood pressure,” explains Ward. “This leafy green also contains phytonutrients, fiber, and folate — a B vitamin that protects blood vessels from dangerous clots.”
All this might help to explain why a 2016 review found that increases in leafy green vegetable intake are associated with a 16% lower incidence of heart disease.
According to Ward, soy-based are loaded with heart-healthy nutrients like isoflavones, plant-based compounds that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
A 2020 study found that people who ate just one serving of tofu a week had a 19% lower risk for heart disease than those who rarely consumed it.
Research has shown that consuming soy protein can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and associated risk factors.
If you can’t get on board with the taste or texture of tofu, try other soy-based foods like edamame or tempeh — which can offer the same heart-protective benefits.