With 35 percent of the American adult population obese or overweight, it’s no wonder heart disease is such a killer (600,000 people die from heart disease every year). Most of us prefer to relax on our couches after a hard day’s work than to go out for a run. After all, it’s well-deserved. But combine that with our affinity for the fattiest of the fatty foods — like this Krispy Kreme triple cheeseburger —as well as sugary, processed, and certain packaged foods, and that risk of heart disease skyrockets. What’s more, the very same lifestyle choices that cause heart disease are likely to cause other chronic diseases too, such as diabetes and cancer. Essentially, it’s a lose-lose situation.
That’s why it’s important to get as much exercise as possible. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends that adults get as little as 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity each week, with muscle strength training included during at least two of those workouts. To get the full benefit of exercise, however, you’re also going to have to eat healthily. There are a lot of healthy foods to choose from, but what are the best for keeping your heart healthy? Here are seven of them.
Salmon and Other Oily Fish
Packed with Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, salmon, and fish in general, are way better than other meats when it comes to heart health. Omega-3s are a type of unsaturated fat that have been implicated in lowering cholesterol by reducing inflammation in the body, according to Mayo Clinic. For this, they’ve been linked to a lower level of triglycerides — a type of fat in the blood — lower blood pressure, reduced blood clotting, and a lower risk of stroke, heart failure, and irregular beating.
“Salmon contains the carotenoid astaxanthin, which is a very powerful antioxidant,” cardiologist Dr. Stephen T. Sinatra, author of the book Lower Your Blood Pressure In Eight Weeks, told Health magazine. Salmon also contains selenium, another antioxidant responsible for protecting the heart from oxidative stress, and thus cellular damage. Other oily fish you can eat besides salmon include mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines. Simply eating these fish twice a week can help lower your risk of heart disease.
Sure, it doesn’t always taste the greatest, but sprucing up its flavor is as easy as adding a little honey, peanut butter, bananas, strawberries, or blueberries — really, whatever you want, as long as it’s healthy. Oatmeal works in various ways to help with heart health, and overall health, with its secret lying in its soluble fiber content (although it also contains folate and potassium).
Soluble fiber “attracts water and turns to gel during digestion. This slows digestion,” according to the NIH. This also means that it keeps people who eat it full for longer, thus helping them diet more easily (if they’re dieting). But soluble fiber also reduces the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream. In this way, it lowers levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is also called “bad” cholesterol.
Walnuts, along with almonds and macadamia nuts, contain lots of unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, just like salmon. They also have vitamin E, magnesium, folate, and more fiber. Eating about a handful, or 1.5 ounces, a day has been linked to a reduced rate of high cholesterol, and may lower risk of heart disease. Keeping your walnut consumption to a handful is best, according to Mayo Clinic, as they tend to be high in calories too.
Also, eating them salted or coated in sugar should be out of the question.
Blueberries have earned the right to be called a superfood. Bite into one of the small, round berries, and you release a wealth of nutrients including the popular antioxidant found in wine and chocolate, resveratrol. Multiple studies have found that resveratrol plays some part in lowering risk of heart disease. In fact, one Harvard University study found that eating blueberries along with strawberries could reduce a person’s risk of a heart attack by more than 30 percent.
The best part about them is that they’re so small that you can add them to your cereal, your oatmeal (for extra heart protection), your pancakes, or you can just eat them from the container.
Green tea’s unique herbal flavor makes it a go-to for many people, but it also comes with some long-known medicinal benefits — Chinese herbalists have been using it for centuries. Just like resveratrol in wine, green tea has unique flavonoids called catechins, which promote antioxidant, antiviral, antiplaque forming, and anticancer activities, according to a 2005 study.
Drinking more than five cups of green tea per day was found to reduce risk of death from a heart attack or stroke by 26 percent in a study from last year involving over 40,000 Japanese adults. It’s suggested that the catechins in the tea help to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, subsequently leading to less clotting and development of plaques.
Joke all you want about beans, but their nutritional value is serious. Again, they’re packed with omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. That means that by eating them, you’re getting a two-pronged attack on heart disease. While the unsaturated fats in beans like lentils, and black and kidney beans reduce inflammation in the body, the soluble fiber reduces cholesterol. In fact, one study found that eating just one serving per day could lower cholesterol by five percent, and heart disease risk by five to six percent.
Though they’re healthy, it’s important to cook beans thoroughly before eating them, or to at least buy them canned. That’s because, uncooked, they contain large amounts of the protein lectin, which is a powerful insecticide.
It would be wrong to leave this list without a vegetable. After all, vegetables are some of the most beneficial foods for our health. Tomatoes, however, are one of a few foods that have lycopene, a carotenoid associated with a lower risk of stroke, and the pigment responsible for tomatoes’ brilliant red coloring. “The shape of the lycopene molecule makes it very effective in being able to quench free radicals,” said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, in a 2012 article on the Harvard Health Blog. “We don’t really understand it entirely yet, but lycopene may have specific properties that protect the cell in a way other antioxidants may not.”
Overall, tomatoes are nutrient rich, containing beta-carotene, folate, potassium, vitamin C and E, and flavonoids. For this reason, they’ve been linked to lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, and a reduction in platelet aggregation.