When you choose your food, do you always have your heart in mind? Admittedly, we often do a quick label audit and scan for calories, fat, and sugar with our waistlines at the forefront of our consciousness. While trimming these categories does benefit your ticker (more on that below), it’s funny that the health of our most vital organ takes a bit of a backseat when we fuel up.
We don’t have to tell you that heart health is paramount—it’s quite obvious. But while cardiovascular disease is preventable through a healthy diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices, it’s still the leading cause of death in the United States. So what can we do to ensure we don’t become a statistic? Logging some weekly cardio and forgoing cigarettes are cut and dry, but diet isn’t as transparent. So to help provide some clarity, we enlisted the help of renowned cardiologist and cardiac surgeon, Steven Gundry, MD. Keep reading to find out his top tips for eating your way to a healthy heart.
1. Eat Good Fats
There are different types of fats, and they vary in how they affect our health: “Omega 3-rich unsaturated fats are outstanding for heart health,” Gundry says. This includes items like walnuts and perilla (of the mint family), as well as avocados and pure olive oil. “They help keep inflammation in check, keep you feeling full, and keep your metabolism nice and high,” he says.
When choosing good fats, though, he warns that the number following “omega” is important: omega-3s are beneficial while omega-6s are bad news. In fact, he tells us that avoiding omega-6 (found in foods such as cashews, pumpkin seeds, and whole-grain bread) is one of his most important recommendations. Not only can an excessive omega-6 profile mess with your blood lipids, but they can also cause inflammation: “A high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 triggers the inflammatory immune response in your body,” he explains. “And chronic low-level inflammation has been extensively tied to metabolic syndrome and heart disease.”
2. Eat Prebiotic Foods
Prebiotics are a relatively new concept that is gaining more and more traction, as studies have proven them to be a potential aid in reducing cancer and obesity. Not to be confused with probiotics, prebiotics help to nourish and support their probiotic counterparts so they can do their job better (read: support gut health). And, according to Gundry, they’re great for your heart, too.
The best source of prebiotics is high-fiber vegetables; Some of Gundry’s favorites include tubers, rutabagas, parsnips, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, Belgian endive, radicchio, tiger nuts, mushrooms, and chicory. “These foods feed your good gut bacteria, helping to crowd out inflammatory bad bacteria and increase your cravings for truly heart-healthy foods,” he says.
3. Avoid Sugars
“Eating sugar spikes insulin, fat storage, cravings, blood lipids, and inflammation,” Gundry says. “This amounts to a massive attack on your system, and if you do this on a regular basis, your blood lipid profile gets out of whack and your heart suffers.”
The worst part of sugar, however, has to be the fact that it’s hard to give up, and this occurs on a biological level. Sugar has been proven to be addictive in many studies, Gundry says, so breaking the habit can be a challenge.
He explains that there are only two ways to sweeten food, and both are equally bad for our bodies. The first is by using sugar, which contains fructose that can increase the fats in your blood and cause a condition known as dyslipidemia. “It’s one of the best predictors of heart disease there is,” he says. On the other hand, artificial sweeteners have their own set of problems: They have chemicals that spike cravings by leaving your body unsatisfied since they only mimic the taste of sugar but don’t deliver it to the bloodstream. “Your brain feels cheated and sends you back looking for more,” Gundry says. He warns that artificial sweeteners also poison the good bacteria in your gut, forcing a "takeover of bad bacteria, which in turn increases inflammation in your body.”
4. Avoid High-Lectin Foods
Grains, beans, and nightshades all fall into this category of high-lectin foods. (Nightshades, by the way, come from a family of fruits and vegetables called solanaceae and include potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes, to name a few.) You may have heard some dietitians and nutritionists calling for a boycott of these if you’re trying to eat healthier—and there’s a good reason. “Lectins are proteins that plants use to defend themselves from predators,” Gundry says. “Post-agricultural revolution plants, such as grains, legumes, and members of the nightshade family have lectins our bodies haven’t evolved to handle.”
The problem is, if we do ingest these lectins, they can trigger inflammation, cause leaky gut, and tank our energy. And worst of all? Gundry explains that “the trickiest thing they do is latch onto sugar receptors in your cells and block the signal that you’re full, causing you to eat heart-damaging sugar continuously.”
5. Be Mindful About Your Protein Choices
On the note of animal proteins, it’s crucial to choose wisely. Wild fish, shrimp, pastured poultry, and omega-3 or pastured eggs should serve as your go-to proteins. These meats have a superior omega-3 profile and don’t have the harmful lectins or pesticides typically ingested by animals, according to Gundry, so they’re the healthiest animal protein choices for your heart.
He also notes that there’s an important reason that grass-fed beef isn’t included on this list, which might be surprising since it carries the stigma of being one of the better options if we choose to indulge in red meat: “It contains high levels of a sugar molecule called Neu5Gc. All you need to know is it’s causing heart disease and cancer for a lot of people.”
As a whole, Gundry recommends not eating too much animal protein if you can avoid it. This counters what we’ve been told before about diets like Paleo, which places an importance on meat-heavy, protein-rich meals. He’s quick to debunk this by telling us such a diet is harmful: “Once your cells have gotten their fill of calories, excess animal protein is converted to sugar in your bloodstream and then stored as fat.”
6. Minimize Fruit
High quantities of fruit are to be avoided for a healthy heart, especially during the winter: “Thanks to an evolutionary response from the Stone Age, your body does two things when you eat fruit: makes you crave more of it, and stores it as fat.” Gundry says this is because fruits were once only available in the summer and were eaten to store fat for the winter for better survival. “If you’re ‘fattening up’ on fruit all year round, then you’re packing on the pounds, throwing your insulin levels and blood lipids out of whack and putting a strain on your heart.”
The same goes for juices: “Fruit juice is touted as healthy and natural,” Gundry says. “Juice by itself isn’t natural, and no animal on earth, besides a human, consumes it.” Juicing a fruit takes all of the sugar from the fruit and makes it drinkable, but it doesn’t include any of the important fiber that our body needs. “It’s a concentrated dose of fructose, and fructose makes your body produce more cholesterol, increasing the strain on your arteries,” he says. Should you crave a fruity drink, opting for a smoothie is much healthier, as it incorporates the full fruit instead of just its sugar-loaded juice.
7. Drink Water, Not Calories
“When you put cream and sugar in your coffee, drink juice, or drink sodas, all you’re doing is spiking your blood sugar,” Gundry says. “This sends your body on a hormonal cascade that ultimately increases your risk for heart disease.” Recent studies show that this increase in sugar can lead to metabolic disease, too. Instead of these sweet beverages, Gundry recommends drinking sparkling water, as it can help reduce hunger. If you’re still craving some flavor, adding lemon and fresh mint can be a refreshing twist, but his favorite treat is to add a splash of balsamic vinegar. “It may sound strange, but it’s my version of cola. It’s delicious, and it will give you your fix.”
But don’t get anxious about giving up your morning cup of coffee just yet: Gundry promises that coffee is good for your heart since it has polyphenols, or micronutrients, linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. Just drink it in moderation (sans cream and sugar).
8. Avoid Cow Dairy
“Dairy is loaded with inflammatory compounds, like lectins, thanks to the grain-rich diet cows are normally fed,” Gundry says. He also explains that oftentimes cows are treated with loads of antibiotics to counteract udder infections, which then negatively affect our systems.
If you can’t cut out dairy—and we don’t blame you, it’s hard!—Gundry recommends switching to moderate amounts of goat’s milk. “It has far fewer problems than cow dairy, though it’s still not perfect.”