A delicious way to protect your ticker: Eat colorful fruits and vegetables, plus must-have nutrients. From watermelons to pineapples, there's a rainbow of potent foods proven to help your heart. Read on to find out what's worth stocking up on.
These fruits are rich in potassium, an important nutrient that plays a role in managing blood pressure and one that most people don't get enough of, says Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RDN, professor of nutrition at Penn State University. Dates may also help cut levels of triglycerides (fats in the blood associated with heart attacks and strokes), according to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
TIP: Dates are high in natural sugar, but low on the glycemic index, meaning they don't cause spikes in blood sugar. One date contains about 66 calories, however, so stick with two per day as a snack.
One cup of pineapple has more than 100% of your day's vitamin C needs — C aids the heart by fighting free radicals, molecules that damage cells. The lutein and zeaxanthin in corn keep arteries from thickening, the main cause of heart disease.
More than 40% of adults don't get enough of this mineral, yet it's responsible for major tasks like improving high blood pressure (which makes the heart work harder than normal, putting you at risk for heart disease). Women over 30 need 320 mg of magnesium a day — which equals 1 ounce of almonds packs 80 mg, the same amount of cashews 74 mg, or 1/2 cup of cooked spinach 78 mg.
Research found that eating spinach — which is high in nitrates — lowered blood pressure and improved heart function in women. And kale is a good source of dozens of heart-healthy antioxidants.
The sulfur content responsible for garlic's pungent smell is actually good for you. Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that it helps produce hydrogen sulfide, a gas that relaxes blood vessels and keeps your blood pressure under control.
TIP: To activate garlic's health-promoting enzymes, crush it, then let it sit for 10 minutes before continuing with your recipe.
Each 7-gram increase in dietary fiber per day can lower your risk of heart disease by 9% — so getting your fill is a crucial way to improve heart health, says Jennifer Mieres, M.D., professor of cardiology at Northwell Health. Most adults get around 16 total grams of fiber a day, a far cry from the recommended 25. Of the two types of fiber — soluble and insoluble — soluble offers the biggest heart perks: Each 5- to 10-gram increase can bring down LDL ("bad") cholesterol by as many as 11 points. Oatmeal is an excellent source of soluble fiber, and black beans and Brussels sprouts are also standouts. Don't sweat the soluble/insoluble difference, though — many foods have both, so the bottom line is to eat things packed with fiber.
As one of the few food sources of vitamin D, mushrooms could be a key tool for your ticker: Research from the University of Copenhagen shows that adults with low levels of the vitamin are at a much higher risk of heart disease.
TIP: To increase the D levels in mushrooms, spread them on a dish and leave them outside in the sun for at least 30 minutes between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Mushrooms produce the sunshine vitamin the same way you do: exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet light. (If they say vitamin D-enhanced or vitamin D-fortified on the carton, you can skip this step.)
"Like magnesium, calcium assists blood vessels in rela and constricting," says Karen Collins, R.D.N. To get enough, choose dairy and dark leafy greens like kale. Also dine on foods with vitamin D, which is essential in helping you absorb calcium — the two nutrients work in tandem.
According to a recent study, consuming 3 or more servings per week of berries helped reduce the risk of heart attack in women in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Granted this isn't a fruit or vegetable, peanut butter is still one of the best heart-healthy eats. Although the creamy spread is high in fat, it's mostly the unsaturated — or healthy — kind. Plus, "people who regularly include nuts or peanut butter in their diet are less likely to develop heart disease or diabetes," says Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, chair of nutrition at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.
TIP: Think outside your PB&J. Add a spoonful of peanut butter to your breakfast smoothie for a protein kick or use it as the base for a noodle sauce.
You know those "healthy" fats you hear about? Omega-3s fall into that category. Two in particular, EPA and DHA, are strongly associated with heart health — research suggests that they decrease triglyceride levels and help keep blood vessels from clogging. They're most plentiful in seafood such as salmon, trout, mussels, crab, and albacore tuna. Two 3.5-ounce servings of these foods per week net you 250 mg of EPA and DHA — an amount associated with a 36% decrease in heart disease mortality.
Watermelon and tomatoes are nature's top sources of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. One study found that people who had the most lycopene in their bloodstream were 55% less likely to have a stroke than those who had the least.
TIP: For a yummy take on both heart-healthy foods, whip up a watermelon tomato salad. In a bowl, whisk together 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice, 1 Tbsp olive oil, ½ tsp honey, ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper. Add 4 tomatoes (sliced), ½ small red onion (thinly sliced) and ½ cup basil (torn) and toss to combine. Arrange 12 oz watermelon (cut into thin 2½-in. pieces) on plates. Top each with 1 cup baby arugula, then the tomato mixture. Top with ½ cup crumbled feta.
This mineral helps lower blood pressure by countering high sodium levels and protecting against hardening of the arteries. Bananas are famous for their potassium, but they're not the real winners: Red-skinned potatoes have about twice as much, and tomato sauce also scores high.
Although known for their vitamin C content, oranges also contain 3 g fiber per fruit, which may lower cholesterol levels. The white pith and orange peel contain pectin, a type of soluble ber that binds to LDL ("bad") cholesterol before it is absorbed in the gut. "Pectin can help keep your cholesterol in check," says David Maron, MD, a cardiologist at Stanford University.
TIP: Orange bell peppers are high in potassium, a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure.
SOURCE: Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics