Heart-Healthy Foods

Heart disease accounts for nearly one-third of all deaths worldwide. While deaths due to heart disease have dropped in recent years, it's still the No. 1 killer of Americans
 Certain foods can influence blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol levels and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.  It's clear that healthy eating and living (like exercising more!) can make a huge difference.

Read on to see what you should be including in your diet to keep your ticker happy for decades to come.

Salmon
Salmon and other fatty fish such as sardines and mackerel are the superstars of heart-healthy foods. That's because they contain copious amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, shown in studies to lower the risk of arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) and atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries) and decrease triglycerides

Walnuts.
Nibbling on 5 ounces of nuts each week may cut your risk of heart disease in half. Walnuts have lots of “good” fats. When you use these monounsaturated fats in place of saturated fats (such as butter), you cut your “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise your “good” HDL cholesterol.

Walnuts are also a good source of omega-3 fats. (They don’t have the same kind of omega-3s as fish, though.)

Raspberries
These berries are loaded with polyphenols -- antioxidants that mop up damage-causing free radicals in your body. They also deliver fiber and vitamin C, which are both linked to a lower risk of stroke.

Fat-Free or Low-fat Milk or Yogurt
“Dairy products are high in potassium, and that has a blood-pressure-lowering effect,” Johnson says. When you choose low-fat or fat-free dairy, you get little to no saturated fat, the kind of fat that can raise your cholesterol.

Chickpeas
Chickpeas and other legumes (lentils, other kinds of beans) are a top-notch source of soluble fiber -- the kind of fiber that can lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol. If you buy canned beans, look for low-sodium or no-salt-added varieties (sodium can raise your blood pressure). Rinse them in water to wash off any added salt.

Oatmeal
Oats have a type of fiber (called beta-glucan) that lowers your LDL cholesterol. One and a half cups of cooked oatmeal or a little over a cup of cooked barley gives you the amount of beta-glucan you need daily to help lower your cholesterol.

Olive oil
A cornerstone of the traditional Mediterranean diet, olive oil is a great pick when you need to limit saturated fat (found in meat, whole milk, and butter). Fats from animal products, and trans fats (“partially hydrogenated oils”) raise your “bad” cholesterol and can make fat build up inside your arteries.

Dark Chocolate
Cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made, is rich in flavanols, which can help lower your blood pressure and prevent blood clots. It also acts as an antioxidant, which can keep “bad” cholesterol from sticking to your artery walls.

Citrus fruits
Women who consume high amounts of the flavonoids found in oranges and grapefruits have a 19% lower risk of ischemic stroke (caused by a clot) than women who don't get as much of these compounds, a 2012 study found. Citrus fruits are also high in vitamin C, which has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease. Beware of citrus juices that contain added sugar. And be aware that grapefruit products may interfere with the action of the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins.

Potatoes

There's no reason to shun potatoes because they're white and look like a "bad" starch. As long as they're not deep fried, potatoes can be good for your heart. They're rich in potassium, which can help lower blood pressure. And they're high in fiber, which can lower the risk for heart disease. "They are definitely not a junk food or refined carbohydrate," says Graf. "They have a lot of health benefits."

Tomatoes

Tomato consumption in the U.S. has been rising and that's a good thing. Like potatoes, tomatoes are high in heart-healthy potassium. Plus, they're a good source of the antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene is a carotenoid that may help get rid of "bad" cholesterol, keep blood vessels open, and lower heart attack risk. And because they're low in calories and low in sugar, they don't detract from an already-healthy diet. "They're excellent for the body in a number of ways," says Graf.

Legumes

Because they come from plants, legumes such as beans, lentils, and peas are an excellent source of protein without a lot of unhealthy fat. One study found that people who ate legumes at least four times a week had a 22% lower risk of heart disease compared with those who consumed them less than once a week. And legumes may help control blood sugar in people with diabetes. Lowering blood sugar levels is key in helping people avoid diabetes complications, one of which is heart disease.

Red wine

Red wine, or small amounts of any type of alcohol, are thought to lower heart disease risk. (Higher amounts, more than a drink or two a day, can actually increase risk.) While some say a polyphenol found in red wine, resveratrol, gives that beverage an added benefit, research suggests that any type of alcohol in moderation works. As with coffee, though, none of these properties are a reason to start drinking alcohol, says Graf. You can also get resveratrol from non-alcohol sources, like natural peanut butter and grapes.

Green tea

Long a favorite in Asia, green tea has grown more popular in the West and may bring with it significant health benefits. A 2013 study found that people who drank four or more cups of green tea daily had a 20% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke compared with people who "seldom" imbibed the beverage. The findings echo a previous study that found lower rates of death, including death from heart disease, among avid drinkers of green tea. Antioxidants known as catechins may be responsible for the effect.

Broccoli, spinach and kale

When it comes to your health, you really can't go wrong with vegetables. But green vegetables may give an extra boost to your heart. These are high in carotenoids, which act as antioxidants and free your body of potentially harmful compounds. They're also high in fiber and contain tons of vitamins and minerals. Kale also has some omega-3 fatty acids. "Green vegetables are super health-promoting foods," says Graf.

Coffee

Another widely consumed beverage—coffee—may also promote heart health. One study found a 10 to 15% lower risk of dying from heart disease or other causes in men and women who drank six or more cups of coffee a day. Other research has found that even two cups a day could lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke by 30%. It's not clear where the benefit comes from and the news isn't necessarily a reason to pick up the habit. "If you're already drinking coffee and enjoying it, continue," says Graf. "If not, there's no reason to start."

Flax seeds

Flax seeds as well as the ultra-chic (among the health conscious) chia seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, says Graf. That's one reason they're good for your heart. Another reason is their high fiber content. Plus, there are a million ways to enjoy them. Try them ground up with other heart-healthy foods, such as dried blueberries, cranberries, or oatmeal or even blended with soy milk and fruit to create a smoothie.

Avocado

These soft, tasty fruits have a well-established reputation for providing the body and heart with healthy fats. Like olive oil, they're rich in the monounsaturated fats that may lower heart disease risk factors, such as cholesterol. They're also high in antioxidants and in potassium, says Graf. They can be eaten on their own or blended into guacamole, perhaps with some heart-promoting tomatoes.

Pomegranate

Pomegranates contain numerous antioxidants, including heart-promoting polyphenols and anthocyanins which may help stave off hardening of the arteries. One study of heart disease patientsfound that a daily dose of pomegranate juice over three months showed improvements in blood flow to the heart. Ultimately, though, it's important to have variety in your diet. If you don't like pomegranates or can't afford them, reach for apples, which also contain plenty of health-promoting compounds, says Graf.

Beans

Beans contain resistant starch, which resists digestion and is fermented by the beneficial bacteria in your gut

According to some animal studies, resistant starch can improve heart health by decreasing blood levels of triglycerides and cholesterol  

Multiple studies have also found that eating beans can reduce certain risk factors for heart disease.

In one study in 16 people, eating pinto beans reduced levels of blood triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol

One review of 26 studies also found that a diet high in beans and legumes significantly decreased levels of LDL cholesterol

What’s more, eating beans has been linked to reduced blood pressure and inflammation, both of which are risk factors for heart disease

Garlic

For centuries, garlic has been used as a natural remedy to treat a variety of ailments.

In recent years, research has confirmed its potent medicinal properties and found that garlic can even help improve heart health.

This is thanks to the presence of a compound called allicin, which is believed to have a multitude of therapeutic effects

In one study, taking garlic extract in doses of 600–1,500 mg daily for 24 weeks was as effective as a common prescription drug at reducing blood pressure (

One review compiled the results of 39 studies and found that garlic can reduce total cholesterol by an average of 17 mg/dL and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 9 mg/dL in those with high cholesterol

Other studies have found that garlic extract can inhibit platelet buildup, which may reduce the risk of blood clots and stroke  

Be sure to consume garlic raw, or crush it and let it sit for a few minutes before cooking. This allows for the formation of allicin, maximizing its potential health benefits.

Edamame

Edamame is an immature soybean frequently found in Asian cuisine.

Like other soy products, edamame is rich in soy isoflavones, a type of flavonoid that may help lower cholesterol levels and improve heart health.

One analysis of 11 studies showed that soy isoflavones reduced total cholesterol by 3.9 mg/dL and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 5 mg/dL

Another analysis showed that 50 grams of soy protein per day decreased LDL cholesterol by an average of 3%

If combined with other changes to diet and lifestyle, even slightly reducing your cholesterol levels can have a big impact on your risk of heart disease.

One study showed that decreasing total cholesterol levels by just 10% was associated with a 15% lower risk of dying from coronary heart disease

In addition to its isoflavone content, edamame is a good source of other heart-healthy nutrients, including dietary fiber and antioxidants