Conditions like cancer tend to steal headlines, yet the leading cause of death in the United States is actually heart disease, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease is an umbrella term for a number of serious problems of the heart or blood vessels, usually due to narrowed, hardened arteries (a state known as atherosclerosis).
The reason atherosclerosis is so dangerous is that the hardened and partially blocked arteries put a lot of strain on the heart muscle as it tries to keep blood flow steady. This not only can result in heart disease, but it also increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart failure.
No single food can cause or prevent heart disease on its own, but researchers have identified a few key dietary mistakes that can hurt one’s heart health: too much saturated fat and trans fat, excess sodium, and a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. To lower the risk of heart disease, here are some of the best foods to center in a healthy diet:
1. Soy Foods
Minimally processed soy products like edamame and tofu are high in protein, fiber, and polyunsaturated fat, which can help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides to reduce heart disease risk. Soy foods are also low in saturated fat, the “bad” kind of fat that raises LDL cholesterol levels in the body.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a diet with no more than 5 to 6 percent of calories from saturated fat (or about 13 grams of saturated fat daily in a 2000-calorie diet). Replacing sources of unhealthy saturated fats (such as animal meat) with healthy unsaturated fats (like soy foods) may lower the risk of heart disease.
2. Beans and Legumes
Beyond soy, there are a number of types of beans that provide protein without the saturated fat found in beef, chicken, and pork. In fact, most beans and legumes (besides soy) are low in all dietary fats. Chickpeas, for example, contain just two grams of fat per cup.
Plus, unlike meat, beans also offer soluble fiber. This special type of fiber appears to prevent the digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol, thus lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Almonds, cashews, and other nuts are another good source of heart-healthy unsaturated fat (along with protein and fiber). A study at Harvard found that people who ate nuts regularly were less likely to die from heart disease than those who did not.
4. Fatty Fish
Mackerel, albacore tuna, sardines, and salmon are all rich in both unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids—a type of polyunsaturated fat that may raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol that is linked to lower triglyceride and blood pressure.
5. Green Leafy Vegetables
Spinach, kale, and collard greens are low in calories but high in fiber, minerals, and micronutrients. For example, green vegetables tend to be high in potassium, which can help lower blood pressure and reduce the negative effects of sodium. Consuming more potassium-rich greens (and fewer high-sodium processed foods) may improve blood pressure to lower the risk of heart disease.
Sunflower, pumpkin, chia, and flax seeds all offer protein, fiber, and healthy unsaturated fats, just like nuts. Seeds tend to also offer high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, so they are a great plant-based alternative for people who do not eat fish.
7. Oats and Oatmeal
Oats are one of the best sources of soluble fiber, which helps lower LDL cholesterol. Plus, oatmeal may be a healthier breakfast option to prevent heart disease compared to conventional breakfast cereals, which are often lower in fiber and high in added sugar. Too much added sugar in the diet may increase the risk of unwanted weight gain, and this has potential risks for heart health.
All fruits and veggies offer important vitamins, but berries deserve a special mention due to their high level of flavonoids—phytochemicals that may reduce inflammation and levels of plaque inside arteries.
In a study of more than 10,600 people over three years, frequent consumption of citrus fruits was linked to lower incidences of cardiovascular disease and stroke. This might be due to the high levels of vitamin C, an antioxidant that may help manage inflammation and protect against cardiovascular disease.
10. Whole Grains
The high-fiber content of whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and whole-wheat bread makes food more filling and satisfying, so it can help with cravings and weight management. A healthy weight may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
11. Lean Seafood
Shrimp, crab, and lobster are all sources of lean protein with less saturated fat than red meat. Stick to steamed, boiled, and grilled versions instead of fried to keep saturated fat content low, and avoid drenching the seafood in butter.
Avocado is an excellent source of unsaturated fat and can be a great plant-based swap for butter or cheese, which are both high in saturated fats. Avocado is also high in fiber and potassium, two great shields against heart disease risk.
13. Green Tea
Like berries, green tea is high in anti-inflammatory flavonoids. Some studies have found that regular tea drinkers may have lower levels of LDL cholesterol, especially those who resist adding heavy amounts of sugar or high-fat dairy.
14. Non-Tropical Oils
Oils should be used in small amounts, but when you add oil, choose oils that are low in saturated fat. Top options include avocado, olive, sesame, soybean, and sunflower oils. Avoid palm oil and coconut oil—the “tropical” oils—which are high in saturated fat.
Everyday food choices have a major impact on heart health—and heart health can impact everything from energy levels to quality of vision. Following a healthy eating plan protects the heart from cardiovascular diseases and ensures the body is getting the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function optimally.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult your doctor or a dietician before making any changes to your diet.