Listen up: Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S. The numbers make this reality even more frightening. According to the CDC, "655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year," and "one person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease." Maintaining optimal heart health is not something to take lightly. We all deserve to live long, healthy, fruitful lives, which requires being mindful of the foods you're putting into your body. In the diet-crazed world we live in, let's not only prioritize slimming our waists and trimming our belly fat. It's tremendously important to protect our hearts (literally and figuratively).
In order to keep our hearts pumping and blood flowing, we must fill our bodies with good, nutritious foods. Think feel-good foods that'll cater to our good cholesterol levels. We reached out to Robert Segal, MD, a board-certified cardiologist and the founder of Manhattan Cardiology. He's also the co-founder of Labfinder.com, which allows users to book medical tests and appointments online. Consider these the best heart-healthy foods to fill your fridge with. There's also a comprehensive list of foods that aren't the best for your heart and a breakdown of why exercise is so good for your cardiovascular health. Here's to your healthiest heart yet.
Oats and Barley
"Oats and barley contain a special type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which has a host of benefits for heart and human health," explains Segal. "Beta-glucans bind to bile acids and cholesterol in the intestines and prevent their absorption into the body. So if you have high cholesterol, it would be a good idea to incorporate oats or oatmeal for breakfast on a regular basis. Beta-glucans are also found in seaweed, baker's yeast, and various species of mushrooms such as reishi, shiitake, and maitake."
"Salmon and other fatty fish like fish oils, especially omega-3 fatty acids, are critical for maintaining a healthy heart," explains Segal. "Fatty fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, herring, lake trout, and sardines, and crustaceans such as lobster, oysters, and squid are the protein staples of a heart-healthy diet. They all contain health-protective omega-3s, specifically the long-chain variety known as LC omega-3, which contains eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Long-chain omega-3s have been shown in human clinical trials to prevent heart attacks by helping the heart maintain its rhythm. Studies show that they also make blood less likely to clot, lower blood pressure, keep blood vessels healthy and less likely to narrow, reduce triglycerides, and lower inflammation."
Dark Leafy Greens
"Salad greens, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard, and mustard greens are rich in vitamins A, C, E, and K and contain antioxidants that help rid toxins from the body," says Segal. "But it's their abundance of calcium, magnesium, and potassium that truly makes them heart-healthy. Potassium is known to help with limiting the effects of sodium on blood pressure, along with magnesium and calcium, help the walls of the blood vessels relax, which increases blood flow and reduces blood pressure. Plus, greens, like most vegetables, are full of fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels."
Nuts and Seeds
"Unsalted seeds and nuts are also high in potassium, magnesium, and other minerals known to reduce blood pressure."
"Avocados are a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which can lower both your total cholesterol and your 'bad' cholesterol (LDL) while maintaining your 'good' cholesterol (HDL) levels," explains Segal. "They can also benefit insulin control, which can be very helpful to those with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes."
"Monounsaturated fatty acids are a mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to improve heart health and brain health, lower risk for breast cancer, and increase longevity," confirms Segal. "Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and has been shown to reduce blood pressure and both bad cholesterol and triglycerides while increasing good cholesterol."
"Legumes, which include all kinds of beans, lentils, chickpeas, and black-eyed peas," are great for heart health according to Segal. "Legumes help the heart because of their high levels of soluble fiber, which is known to lower both cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the bloodstream. Soluble fiber binds to extra LDL cholesterol in the body and disposes it in the form of waste. Legumes contain no cholesterol and are only about 3% fat. They are full of iron, manganese, copper, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and phosphorous, and they are very low on the glycemic index, which means they have less effect on your blood sugar. They are also extremely high in protein. For example, a half-cup of some legumes has eight grams of protein."
We all need reminders of the foods we should be eating in moderation or avoiding altogether. Segal breaks down the foods that aren't the healthiest for our hearts below.
You Should Eat Less of Anything With Trans Fats, and Here's Why
According to Segal, trans fat raises your LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lowers your HDL ("good") cholesterol. "A diet laden with trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, the leading killer of men and women," warns Segal. "The manufactured form of trans fat, known as partially hydrogenated oil, is found in a variety of food products."
These are the foods high in trans fat:
1. Baked goods. "Most cakes, cookies, pie crusts, and crackers contain shortening, which is usually made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Ready-made frosting is another source of trans fat."
2. Snacks. Potato, corn, and tortilla chips often contain trans fat. And while popcorn can be a healthy snack, many types of packaged or microwave popcorn use trans fat to help cook or flavor the popcorn.
3. Fried food. Foods that require deep frying like French fries, doughnuts, and fried chicken, can contain trans fat from the oil used in the cooking process.
4. Refrigerated dough. Products such as canned biscuits and cinnamon rolls often contain trans fat, as do frozen pizza crusts.
5. Creamer and margarine. Nondairy coffee creamer and stick margarine also may contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
According to a Cardiologist, Here's What You Need to Do to Have the Healthiest Heart
"Eat a mostly plant- and fish-based Mediterranean diet free of as many processed foods and added sugars as you can," suggests Segal. "Try to limit the refined processed carbohydrates to rare treats."
"I advise my patients to exercise daily for at least 30 minutes with aerobic exercise at least five to six days out of the week. The more you exercise, the better it is for lowering cholesterol, stress, inflammation, and potential abnormal heart rhythms. I am not a fan of supplements, and I advise my patients to eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight. There are rare times where I do use magnesium for certain abnormal heart rhythms. I also advise some intermittent fasting to aid in weight loss, blood pressure, and cholesterol control."
While we're on the subject, next, find out what "healthy" foods might not be the best for your heart.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease facts. Updated September 8, 2020.