Can food really be your medicine as Hippocrates so famously said?
When it comes to heart health, it just might. According to a statement from the American Heart Association (AHA), replacing foods high in saturated fats, for example, with those that have healthier unsaturated fats, can reduce a person’s risk of developing heart disease as much as treatment with cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.
We can look at studies like these and nod our heads and think, Obviously, the right foods can make a big difference.
But, what are the right foods? We’ve got 12 of the best ones right here. In honor of heart health month, here’s to your next tasty meal!
This fatty fish is full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to reduced inflammation and, in some studies, to a lower risk of heart disease. The AHA recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week, including salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna.
“Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats),” it says on its website, “which can lead to sudden death. Omega-3 fatty acids also decrease triglyceride levels, slow growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, and lower blood pressure (slightly).”
These are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but they are a different kind from those found in fatty fish. They’re rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) as well as nutrients like folate and vitamin E. Studies have found that they have a unique talent. However, they seem to be able to reduce levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
Preliminary findings from a study presented at the Experimental Biology 2016 meeting showed that daily consumption of a handful of walnuts had a positive effect on cholesterol levels, without increasing body weight. Other studies have found similar results, with daily walnut intake correlating with reduced LDL cholesterol. Results have also shown that walnuts help boost friendly bacteria in the gut, reducing inflammation.
Excess cholesterol can build up in the arteries, gradually narrowing them and increasing the risk of blood clots, so keeping cholesterol levels controlled is believed to help reduce the risk of heart disease.
You’ve heard the old saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Well, you may want to add “avocado” to that saying, at least according to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, adding an avocado to your daily diet may help lower bad cholesterol, reducing the risk for heart disease.
Avocados are high in those healthy monounsaturated fatty acids that are so good for cardiovascular health. Other studies have indicated that they are a cholesterol-lowering food, and this recent study also showed that participants eating the avocados decreased bad cholesterol by 13.5 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) — more even than a low-fat or moderate-fat diet.
Oatmeal is high in soluble fiber — a type of fiber that attracts water and turns to gel during digestion, slowing digestion. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to stool and helps food pass more quickly through the digestive system.
Soluble fiber is linked with reducing bad cholesterol levels as well as with easing digestion and helping you maintain a healthy weight. Its “soaking up” action also soaks up cholesterol so that it’s not absorbed into the bloodstream. Other foods rich in soluble fiber include nuts, beans, apples and blueberries.
Avoid high-sugar instant oatmeal and choose the old-fashioned kind instead for the best health benefits.
5. Raspberries, Blueberries and Strawberries
Most berries are good for your heart health too. In addition to containing fiber, they’re a good source of powerful antioxidants that can reduce levels of damage-causing free radicals in the body.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that cause destruction wherever they go. We produce them ourselves through natural metabolism, and we’re also exposed to them from the sun’s radiation and environmental pollution.
Studies have shown that free radical oxidative damage can affect the blood vessel walls, encouraging the development of cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants neutralize these free radicals, preventing them from wreaking havoc.
Berries not only contain protective antioxidants, but they’ve also been found to help prevent heart disease. In a 2010 study, for instance, researchers found that participants who consumed more berries experienced improvements in LDL oxidation, reduced inflammation and glucose metabolism. In 2013, researchers reported that women who ate at least three servings of blueberries and strawberries per week could reduce their risk of a heart attack by as much as one-third.
6. Dark Chocolate
If you’re hankering for something sweet, reach for the dark chocolate as studies show it can help protect your heart. Look for those types that are high in real cocoa milligrams per deciliter — at least 60 to 70 percent — as it’s the cocoa that has the helpful antioxidants, not the milk, sugar or other ingredients.
Studies have shown that regular intake of this type of dark chocolate can help you reduce your risk of heart problems. In 2012, they reported that daily consumption of 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate could reduce the risk of heart disease even in those people who were at high risk for it. In 2015, they also reported that middle-aged and older adults who ate up to 3.5 ounces of chocolate a day had lower rates of heart disease than those who didn’t eat chocolate.
Findings with dairy products and heart disease have been inconsistent, but studies specifically on yogurt have shown more consistent results. In 2017, for example, researchers published a review of nine studies involving nearly 300,000 participants. They found that intake of about 200 grams a day of yogurt — about 7 ounces — or more was significantly associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Scientists have found other evidence that yogurt can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol as well as have a stabilizing effect on blood sugar. Some studies have even suggested that yogurt may have a role in weight management. Yogurt is rich in nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. It is a good source of probiotics, which help support a healthy gut microbiota.
8. Oranges, Grapefruits and Other Citrus Fruits
All of these fruits contain a high level of vitamin C, which has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease. Because it does work as an antioxidant in the body, researchers believe that vitamin C may help protect the arteries against oxidative damage. It may also prevent damage to LDL cholesterol, keeping it from building up as plaque inside the blood vessels.
Studies have linked citrus fruits to a lower risk of heart disease. In 2011, for example, they examined data from more than 10,000 participants and found that frequent intake of citrus fruit was associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. In 2016, researchers found that adding oranges, limes and lemons to the daily diet could help decrease the risk of obesity-related diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
These little goodies, as well as other legumes, are rich in soluble fiber, so they help to soak up that LDL cholesterol. Chickpeas and traditional hummus are rich in dietary fiber and protein as well as several key vitamins and minerals important for health. Sometimes, called garbanzo beans, they have been linked to reducing the risk of diabetes, osteoporosis and blood pressure and helping to lower the total amount of cholesterol in the blood.
In one study, for example, those who ate one serving a day of beans, peas, chickpeas or lentils significantly reduced cholesterol levels, thereby reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease.
Tomatoes are rich in heart-healthy potassium as well as in lycopene, which is a key antioxidant. Studies have linked lycopene with helping to control cholesterol levels and keeping blood vessels open and flexible.
In 2002, for example, researchers reported that healthy human subjects ingesting lycopene in the form of tomato juice, tomato sauce or capsules had significantly lower levels of LDL cholesterol compared with control subjects. Scientists cautioned people not to attribute the effects solely to lycopene, noting that tomatoes contain other carotenoids in various proportions and that these other nutrients could be factors in helping to control cholesterol.
Lycopene alone has shown the ability to inhibit the activity of an essential enzyme that’s involved in the production of cholesterol. Scientists think too that it may help support healthy blood vessels.
11. Extra-virgin Olive Oil
Studies on the Mediterranean diet, which includes olive oil, have shown that it may help to reduce the risk of heart disease. In a 2013 study, those who ate this diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil — four tablespoons a day — reduced their risk of heart attacks, strokes and dying by 30 percent. The olive oil was also found to help improve the function of HDL “good” cholesterol.
Olive oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, which as noted above, can help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Scientists believe that the antioxidants in the oil help preserve HDL cholesterol from oxidative stress, protecting it. High-functioning HDL cholesterol in the body helps reduce levels of LDL cholesterol and helps keep blood vessels flexible and relaxed.
In a 2014 study, researchers found that consumption of olive oil, particularly the extra-virgin variety, was associated with reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and mortality in individuals with a high risk for cardiovascular disease.
12. Green Tea
Green tea has a number of health benefits, and one of them may be to protect your heart. Studies have found that this tea may help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and it also has powerful antioxidants that may help to protect blood vessels from damage.
In 2012, scientists studied more than 40,000 adults and found that those who drank more than five cups of green tea a day had a 26 percent lower risk of death from a heart attack or stroke and a 16 percent lower risk of death from all causes than people who drank less than one cup a day.
Other studies have shown similar results. In 2011, a review of 13 studies on green tea showed that those who drank the most had a 28 percent lower risk of coronary artery disease than those who drank the least. Another analysis of 14 studies found that green tea lowered LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Green tea is rich in polyphenolic compounds called “catechins” that are believed to be responsible for many of its health benefits. They’re powerful antioxidants, but they also help reduce inflammation and blood pressure, promote healthy blood vessels and help prevent blood clots.
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