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5 foods and diets for heart health

Medically reviewed on August 1, 2022 by Karen Janson, M.D. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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Most of us have heard about the importance of prioritizing heart health from a friend, nurse, or medical journal. But with a seemingly endless list of remedies, knowing where to start can sometimes feel impossible. Luckily, there’s heart-nourishing potential within one of our everyday tasks: eating.

The nutrients packed inside our food harness the power to promote heart health in more ways than one. With the right knowledge, anyone can unlock them. Building and maintaining diets for heart health can be achieved with just five common foods.

Together, we’ll identify what those foods are and why they play such an integral role in nourishing our hearts and bodies.

Healthy foods for your heart

The good news is that our bodies collect nutrients that naturally aid heart health. In fact, the body absorbs HDL, or good cholesterol, through healthy foods. Diets for heart health involve plenty of organic foods and less processed food—the search for heart-healthy food starts in the soil.

Nutrients to look for

It can be difficult, and often impossible, to restrict yourself to just a few foods for the rest of your life. So, while you’re exploring the world of culinary fare, steer toward foods and food labels that contain the following nutrients and organic compounds helpful in boosting your heart health:

  • Fiber – The American Hospital Association cites fiber as a key nutrient in many foods linked to strong heart health, including whole grains, plant-based proteins, fruits, and vegetables. [1]
  • Unsaturated fats – These healthy fats can stabilize cholesterol levels and heart rhythms. Increase your fat intake with the good kind. Look for two types: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which can often be found in nuts, seeds, and avocados. [2]
  • Omega-3 fatty acids– This unique class of polyunsaturated fat is immensely beneficial for fighting heart disease by reducing bad cholesterol. Find it in abundance in fatty fish, flax seeds, and walnuts. [2]
  • Plant-based protein – One study from the International Journal of Epidemiology found that replacing animal-based protein with that of plants decreased the risk of heart disease by up to 54%. [3] That's one good reason to give up red meat and processed meat!

If you’re eating out at a restaurant or are unsure of the nutritional content of your food, consider leaning toward plant-based plates with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Choose foods with low saturated fat, trans fat, unhealthy fats, processed, food, and added sugar. A heart healthy diet should focus on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, healthy fat, legumes, and plant protein or oily fish.

Foods for a healthy heart

The foods below contain high amounts of the nutrients we just reviewed. Many of them follow the helpful rule we mentioned above: start in the soil. Adding these foods into your weekly routine could contribute to healthy and satisfying diets for heart health.

Whole grains

Whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat bread are packed with fiber, producing an abundance of heart and overall health benefits. The fiber found in whole grains can improve inflammation, lower blood pressure, and reduce cholesterol levels. [4]

Look for whole grains such as:

  • Whole wheat
  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Millet

Remember: Not all grains are not created equal. Be sure to check your food labels for whole grain and whole wheat, as these contain the nutritional components that their white flour counterparts typically lack.

Berries

Fruits, especially berries ripe with antioxidants, have been shown to reduce LDL and blood vessel inflammation, which clears the passageway for blood and oxygen to make their way to the heart. Fruits are also high in fiber.

Favor these fruits in your grocery store cart:

  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries

Leafy greens

Vegetables of all kinds are a primary source of fiber, vitamins, and nutrients. Leafy greens are especially healthy for the heart. The consumption of leafy green vegetables has been shown to reduce heart disease by up to 16%.

Collect a garden of these leafy greens for your kitchen:

  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Collard greens
  • Cabbage
  • Arugula
  • Swiss chard

Legumes

Legumes are a rich source of plant protein to add to a heart-healthy diet. These small meal additions have a huge impact—they provide beneficial B-vitamins and potassium while lending a capable hand in fighting high levels of LDL. [7]

Put these legumes at the center of your plate:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas

Fish

Fish are a primary source of omega-3 and other polyunsaturated fats that are beneficial in diets for heart health. Studies show that fish consumption is linked to a lower risk of coronary heart disease and heart failure. [8]

Look for oily fish high in omega 3 fatty acids, such as:

  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Whitefish
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Cod

How quickly these foods can help your heart

The speed at which bodies absorb and process nutrients from food varies from person to person. It often depends on the current state of the body, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and many more factors.

However, studies show that coupling a heart-healthy diet with exercise produces stronger results compared to upgrading the diet alone. So, adding exercise to your heart-healthy lifestyle routines could increase the speed of heart benefits. [9]

Foods to avoid

Where heart-healthy food is rooted in land and sea, unhealthy foods for your heart are just the opposite. To keep your heart in good shape, avoid food from factories, boxes, and bags. Additionally, do your best to steer clear of red meat and full-fat dairy, as they often contain high levels of bad cholesterols.

Consider consuming these foods in low moderation to maintain a heart-healthy diet.

  • Red meat, cured meat, and bacon
  • Full-fat dairy products like whole milk, butter, and cheese
  • Fried foods and fast food
  • Packaged snacks, like potato chips and crackers
  • Processed sweets, like cookies and cakes
  • White bread, pasta, and pizza

There’s no need to deprive yourself completely of a birthday cake or your favorite thin-crust pizza every once in a while. In fact, whole-grain bread and cakes are becoming more widespread as consumers pay closer attention to health. The most essential part is consuming higher-risk foods in moderation and increasing your intake of nutritious, heart-healthy foods.

Other factors that impact heart health

The heart is at the center of your body’s functions. As such, it can be vulnerable to both internal and external threats. When these threats manifest, they can sometimes lead to serious health problems. Understanding their direct impact on the heart is the key to taking care of it.

Lifestyle habits that negatively impact heart health

Lifestyle habits are almost always a choice. Reducing or eliminating these habits is an excellent place to start when considering ways to lead a more heart-healthy lifestyle.

The following factors may negatively impact your heart health:

  • Stress – Stress is one of the number one causes of long-term heart conditions. Stress can increase blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart problems. It can also be a gateway into other unhealthy habits, like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. [10]
  • Smoking – Smoking imposes several harmful health risks. It causes blockages in the arteries and blood vessels, making it harder for blood to reach your heart and other vital organs. [11]
  • Lack of exercise – A sedentary lifestyle is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Regular exercise can help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and balance insulin levels. [12]

Health conditions that increase the risk of heart disease

There are also certain pre-existing or long-term health conditions that can increase your risk of heart disease. You may be able to sidestep some of these conditions by living a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a heart-healthy diet. However, some may be genetic and unavoidable.

Here are some common health conditions that can negatively impact your heart health:

  • High cholesterol – There’s good cholesterol, also known as HDL, and bad cholesterol, known as LDL. High levels of LDL in the blood can block blood from pumping to and from the heart. [13]
  • High blood pressure – Also known as hypertension, this can happen when the force of your blood against vessel walls is too high, making artery walls rigid and disabling healthy blood flow. [14]
  • Diabetes – This disease affects the body’s natural blood glucose or insulin levels. High blood sugar levels can negatively impact blood vessels and heart nerves. [15]
  • Obesity – Obesity can increase the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Excess fat collects in blood vessels, blocking blood from the heart. [15]

If you have—or think you have—any of the health conditions listed above, seek a blood test to detect high levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, or insulin. Talk to your healthcare provider to make a healthcare plan to control your symptoms and risks.

Take your health to heart with Everlywell

Leading a heart-healthy lifestyle can start right at your dining table. Sprucing up your meal plan with the five heart-healthy food groups we’ve discussed can strengthen your heart health while providing a host of other nourishing benefits.

The first step to a heart-healthy diet is understanding your heart health today—and that’s where we come in.

We’re Everlywell, your partner for at-home health and wellness tests. Our easy-to-use tests deliver fast, accurate, and comprehensive results straight to your phone to empower your healthy living.

Our Heart Health Test measures both HDL and LDL cholesterol levels as well as other blood-level components that are vital to predicting your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other serious conditions.

Take control of your heart health at home today. Get started with our Heart Health Test to kick off your journey to better health.

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Heart-healthy foods: plant-based and animal-based foods for the heart

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References

  1. 2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. American Hospital Association. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  2. Types of Fat. Harvard School of Public Health. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  3. Protein foods from animal sources, incident cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: a substitution analysis. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  4. Eat more fiber-rich foods to foster heart health. Harvard Medical School. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  5. Dietary Strawberries Improve Cardiometabolic Risks in Adults with Obesity and Elevated Serum LDL Cholesterol in a Randomized Controlled Crossover Trial. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  6. The effect of green leafy and cruciferous vegetable intake on the incidence of cardiovascular disease: A meta-analysis. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  7. Effect of dietary pulse intake on established therapeutic lipid targets for cardiovascular risk reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  8. Fish Consumption and the Risk of Chronic Disease: An Umbrella Review of Meta-Analyses of Prospective Cohort Studies. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  9. Effectiveness of altering serum cholesterol levels without drugs. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  10. Stress and Heart Health. American Heart Association. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  11. Smoking Risks. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  12. Exercise and Cardiovascular Health. American Hospital Association. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  13. Managing High Cholesterol. Heart Foundation. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  14. High Blood Pressure. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  15. Obesity. British Heart Foundation. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  16. Heart Healthy Diet.Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
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