February is American Heart Month, which reminds us that heart disease is still the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Every year, one in four deaths are caused by heart disease. The good news is that your lifestyle choices can improve the health of your heart. Making simple choices like including an apple at lunch instead of french fries or choosing salmon instead of beef can go a long way in terms of heart health. Try including these seven heart-healthy foods in your diet to help keep your ticker in tip-top shape.
Tomatoes have long been linked to heart health. They are an excellent source of vitamin C, along with potassium, fiber, and vitamin A. Plus, tomatoes contain the antioxidant lycopene, a carotenoid that may help lower bad cholesterol (LDL), keep blood vessels open, and lower heart disease risk. Lycopene is highest in cooked tomatoes, so be sure to include tomato stews, soups, and sauces in your heart-healthy diet.
Blueberries are a small package with big benefits. Researchers think the antioxidants in blueberries (and other berries) called anthocyanins may dilute blood vessels and decrease blood pressure. According to a recent study, just one cup of blueberries per day can help reduce blood pressure and arterial stiffness in post-menopausal women, both of which are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Blueberries work great as a snack, topping, or ingredient because they’re available year-round, they add vitamin C and fiber to your diet, and they're only 80 calories per cup.
Fatty fish is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, research shows that consuming two or more servings of fish per week is associated with a 30 percent lower risk of developing heart disease. While salmon, tuna, and trout are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, sardines may trump their fishy counterparts. Sardines are not only high in omega-3 fatty acids, due to their small size they are extremely low in contaminants such as mercury. Sardines also provide other important nutrients. For example, a ¼ cup serving of BELA sardines in olive oil contains 120 calories, 13 grams of protein, and is packed with calcium and vitamin D for good health.
People who eat whole grains tend to have a lower risk of heart disease than those who don’t. Whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, and whole-wheat pasta and bread all provide fiber. They contain antioxidants and phytosterols that have been shown to protect against heart disease. The American Heart Association says that both the insoluble fiber (found in wheat and rye) and soluble fiber (found in oats) in whole grains are associated with an increased diet quality and lower risk of heart disease. The general recommendation is to make half of your grains whole grains.
Including small amounts of healthy oils in your diet are important for your heart and your enjoyment of food. According to the American Heart Association, better-for-you oils include canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil and vegetable oil. These oils are high in unsaturated fats, which can improve your blood cholesterol levels. While all of these oils work well on the stove, grill, or in dressings – adding their own unique flavors, canola oil is best for baking because it has a neutral flavor and creates the perfect texture for baked goods.
Beans are an excellent source of plant-based protein, as well as other heart-healthy components – including soluble fiber, minerals and antioxidants. And you don’t need to eat a lot of beans to benefit. Research shows just a ½ cup of beans daily might lower cholesterol. One reason for this is that the soluble fiber in beans helps bind cholesterol and stop it from being absorbed in the gut. Beans are also inexpensive and there are many to choose from – garbanzo beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, and navy beans all do your heart good. Next time you’re cooking a soup or stir-fry, throw in some beans for your ticker.
Nuts are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and heart-healthy fats. Research suggests that people who eat nuts – walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews -- two to four times a week have a lower risk of heart disease compared to people who eat them less often. Nuts have been shown to help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol and may help improve the health of the lining of your arteries. Nuts are also inexpensive, easy to store, and work great as a healthy on-the-go option. Since they are relatively high in calories, aim to keep a serving size to one ounce (or one handful).
Patricia Bannan is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian specializing in nutrition and health communications. She is the author of "Eat Right When Time Is Tight: 150 Slim-Down Strategies and No-Cook Food Fixes." Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.