Eating a heart-healthy diet throughout your life can go a long way toward keeping you in top shape as you age. “In fact, heart disease is largely preventable,” says Walter Willett, M.D., professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Eating a healthy diet, combined with not smoking and exercising regularly, could prevent about 80 percent of heart disease cases.”
As a general rule, a heart-healthy diet should focus on whole grains, healthy fats, lean sources of protein, and a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. And you should minimize refined carbohydrates, sugar, and saturated fats.
But certain foods are particularly heart-smart because they’ve been specifically linked to clearer arteries, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and or reduced inflammation. Incorporating more of them into your overall healthy diet may help decrease your risk of heart disease.
Still, it’s not so much about adding more foods (and more calories) to your daily intake as it is about using these heart-healthy foods to replace less healthy ones.
“You can’t sprinkle nuts on top of a chocolate sundae and think you’ve done something good for your heart,” says Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University. “You need to eat a handful of nuts as a snack instead of a handful of chips or add them to a salad in place of cheese.”
So when you’re looking for heart-healthier options, here are seven foods that stand out.
All whole grains are good for your heart (among other things). In fact, a 2016 analysis of 14 studies published in the journal Circulation found that for every serving of whole grains consumed daily, the risk of cardiovascular disease dropped by 9 percent (compared with eating no whole grains).
But oatmeal is a whole grain that deserves special recognition for its cholesterol-lowering powers.
“Oatmeal is particularly rich in soluble fiber,” Willett says. “And soluble fiber has been shown to bind to cholesterol and keep it out of the bloodstream.” There’s enough evidence to back this up, that the Food and Drug Administration allows oatmeal and certain oatmeal products to tout the claim “can help reduce cholesterol” on the product package.
To get the benefits, you need to have at least 3 grams of soluble fiber a day—that’s the amount in ¾ cup of dry oats. People who got that amount saw levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol drop by an average of 9.6 mg/dL and total cholesterol by 11.6 mg/dL, according to a 2014 analysis of 28 studies involving 2,519 people that was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
According to the Department of Agriculture, apples are the second most eaten fruit (bananas are first), and luckily, they also happen to have some important heart-health benefits.
The fruit-especially its skin-is rich in antioxidant flavonoids like quercetin and anthocyanins (in red apples) that have been linked to cardio-protective effects.
And a 2012 study of 160 postmenopausal women found that those who consumed 75 grams of dried apple daily (equal to about two medium fresh apples) reduced their total cholesterol by 9 percent and LDL cholesterol by 16 percent after three months. After six months of daily apple eating, total cholesterol dropped by 13 percent and LDL cholesterol dropped by 24 percent. Plus, apples are a top source of soluble fiber, supplying about 1 gram in one medium apple.
Fish is the best dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that may help reduce the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two 3 ½ ounce serving of fish a week.
A 2017 analysis of 14 studies involving a total of 1,378 people, published in the journal Atherosclerosis, found that those who consumed between 0.7 and 5 ounces of oily fish daily showed significant improvements in levels of triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. Triglycerides dropped an average of 9.7 mg/dL, and HDL levels rose an average of 2.3 mg/dL.
Unfortunately, some types of fish that are omega-3 rich have too much mercury (think mackerel or albacore tuna) or are pricey (such as salmon). Sardines are a low-mercury choice and pack nearly 1,000 mg of omega-3s in just 3 ½ ounces. Plus, they’re inexpensive and, because they come canned, convenient.
Nuts are a good source of unsaturated fats as well as fiber, protein, and a variety of minerals and antioxidants.
Walnuts in particular may have a slight edge, thanks to their high levels of anti-inflammatory alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fat found in plant foods. A study published last year in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who ate a 1-ounce serving of nuts five or more times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) than those who didn’t eat nuts. But those who ate one or more servings of walnuts per week had a 19 percent lower risk of CVD.
Another review, published last year in the journal Clinical Nutrition, found that walnut consumption helped improve endothelial function, meaning better blood flow through your vessels and into your heart.
The category of food known as pulses (which includes lentils, beans, chickpeas, and dry peas) is known for its heart-health benefits.
These plant-based protein sources are low in fat, high in fiber, and rich in nutrients such as potassium and the B vitamin folate that have been linked to lower blood pressure.
A 2014 analysis of 26 randomized clinical trials found that one serving of pulses per day (about 2⁄3 cup) lowered LDL cholesterol by 6.6 mg/dL.
While you can tap into the power of pulses by eating any variety, lentils have one big advantage: They’re fast. Unlike most dried beans that require soaking and at least an hour on the stove, lentils just need a quick rinse and cook in less than 20 minutes.
Berries (of all kinds) get some well-deserved attention for their heart-health benefits. They get their red and blue coloring from antioxidant anthocyanins.
Blueberries have one of the highest levels of anthocyanins, with 120 mg per half-cup. Some clinical trials have shown that higher intakes of anthocyanins can help decrease blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation. A 2011 study that followed more than 150,000 men and women for 14 years found that those who consumed more than one serving of blueberries per week had a 10 percent reduction in hypertension compared with those who ate no blueberries.
Dark leafy greens are a universally healthy food group, rich in many beneficial nutrients. And they all pack high doses of magnesium and potassium—both of which are important for helping to regulate blood pressure.
Among leafy greens, kale stands out from the rest for also containing high levels of the antioxidant lutein. Latin gets a lot of credit for its role in helping to prevent macular degeneration. But several studies have linked higher levels of this yellow pigment in the blood to decreased levels of inflammatory markers and atherosclerosis.
Note though, that kale is high in vitamin K and eating too much vitamin K can interfere with anticoagulant medications—especially if you suddenly consume a lot of it. So if you take these drugs, check with your doctor before gorging on kale salads.