Top heart-healthy foods and how to include them in your meals


A healthy diet and lifestyle are your best weapons to fight cardiovascular disease. It’s not as hard as you may think! Remember, it’s the overall pattern of your choices that counts. Make the simple steps below part of your life for long-term benefits to your health and your heart.

You may be eating plenty of food, but your body may not be getting the nutrients it needs to be healthy. Nutrient-rich foods have vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients but are lower in calories.

Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables may help you control your weight, cholesterol and your blood pressure.

To get the nutrients you need, eat a dietary pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy, poultry, fish and nuts, while limiting red meat, sugary foods and soda.

Many diets fit this pattern, including the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan which is a flexible and balanced eating plan based on research studies sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

These studies showed that DASH diet lowers high blood pressure and improves levels of blood lipids (fats in the bloodstream), which reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Of course, DASH diet includes lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meat. The DASH research showed that lowering sodium to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day lowered blood pressure, and lowering sodium to 1,500 mg lowered blood pressure even more.

We now have all heard of so called ‘super foods’, which are touted as super nutritious and disease fighting.

But, there are no standard criteria or approved list of super foods.

Eating ‘super foods’ won’t hurt you. In fact, most are the very foods that are recommended for every day any way like whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fish, fatty fish and all fruits and veggies.

But keep in mind not to focus just on a few super foods on top of an already unhealthy diet. Eating too much of one type of food may prevent you from getting the nutrients you need.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many people in the U.S. don’t get enough of the potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, milk and milk products.

In addition to essential vitamins and nutrients, many fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds rovide phytochemicals— chemical compounds found in plants — that may help reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits in artery walls.

The heart healthy heroes are:
Salmon is a fatty fish that’s low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can decrease the risk of abnormal heartbeats, reduce triglycerides (the chemical form of fats in most foods and in your body) and slow the growth of plaque in the arteries.

The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two 3.5 ounce servings of fish a week.

Nuts, legumes and seeds are good sources of protein and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats when eaten in moderation. Choices include unsalted almonds, peanuts, pistachios and walnuts. The American Heart Association recommends getting four servings a week.

Berries like blueberries and strawberries have high levels of phytochemicals called flavonoids.

One study showed that women who consumed more blueberries and strawberries had a lower risk of heart attack by reducing the buildup of LDL (bad) cholesterol in artery walls.

The American Heart Association recommends nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, about 4.5 cups. Enjoy berries in cereals, salads, muffins are by themselves.

Dark green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, swiss chard, broccoli, collard greens) are high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that may protect against cardiovascular disease and also a source of omega-3 fatty acids.

They are rich in folate which helps reduce blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine, a risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease at high levels.

Get your fill by eating a cup a day of your favorite dark green, leafy vegetable.

Dark chocolate is high in flavonoids, but fat and calories too! Treat yourself in moderation to avoid weight gain. One study showed dark chocolate was associated with lower heart failure risk.

Red wine in moderation may have some health benefits, but the American Heart Association doesn’t recommend drinking alcohol to get them. High alcohol consumption can have negative effects on health, such as increased triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, and liver damage.

Oatmeal at a half-cup a day contains only about 130 calories while delivering 5 grams of heart-healthy fiber that helps to lower cholesterol and keep body weight to a healthy level. Another benefit of oatmeal is that it will fill you up and likely keep you filled until lunchtime.

Almonds/Walnuts/flaxseed are high in omega-3 fatty acids, Vit E, fiber, healthy oils, and phytosterols. All contributing to keeping arteries clear.

Mix into low-fat yogurt, trail mix, or fruit salads pastas, cookies, muffins, pancakes.

Black or Kidney Beans contains B-complex vitamins; niacin; folate; magnesium; omega-3 fatty acids; calcium; soluble fiber. Give soup or salad a nutrient boost — stir in some beans.

In case you haven’t noticed, most heart healthy foods are from plants. You don’t necessarily have to become a vegetarian to have a healthy heart, but you do have to choose mostly lean meats if you do eat meat.  To incorporate more fruits, vegetable, grains in you diet, try these ideas for:

Breakfast:
Eat melon, grapefruit or other fruit.
Add bananas, raisins or berries to your cereal.
Drink a small (6-ounce) glass of juice. Be sure it’s 100% fruit or vegetable juice without excess sodium or sugars – not “fruit drink,” “cocktail” or “punch.”
Add chopped up vegetables to your eggs or potatoes. Try onions, celery, green or red bell peppers, or spinach.

Lunch:
Have a fruit or vegetable salad with lunch.
Put vegetables on your sandwich, such as cucumber, sprouts, tomato, lettuce or avocado.
Eat a bowl of vegetable soup. (Compare food labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium you can find in your store, or make soup from scratch.)
Have a piece of fruit or raw veggie sticks instead of chips.

Dinner:
Have a fruit or vegetable salad with dinner.
Add a side of steamed or microwaved vegetables – frozen veggies are fine!
When you use the oven to cook your meal, put in a whole potato, sweet potato or yam at the same time.
Add chopped vegetables like onions, garlic and celery when cooking soup, stew, beans, rice, spaghetti sauce and other sauces.
When making rice, add some frozen peas for the last three minutes of cooking.

Snacks:
Keep raw veggie sticks handy, such as green or red bell peppers, green beans, celery or carrots.
Carry dried fruit, such as raisins, dates or dried apricots, in your purse or pocket.
Have any type of fresh fruit: grapes, apple, banana, orange, kiwi, etc.
On hot days, munch on a bowl of frozen fruits or vegetables, such as grapes, peas or bananas.

Guide to Nutrients in a Heart Healthy Diet:
Phytoestrogens are substances in plants (like flaxseed) that have a weak estrogen-like action in the body. Studies suggest that flaxseed lowers the risk of blood clots, stroke, and cardiac arrhythmias. It may also help lower total and LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides, and even blood pressure.

Phytosterols are plant sterols that chemically resemble cholesterol — and seem to reduce blood cholesterol. All nuts and seeds, including wheat germ, have phytosterols.

Carotenoids are heart-protective antioxidants in many colorful fruits and veggies. Alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene are carotenoids.

Polyphenols are another set of antioxidants that protect blood vessels, lower blood pressure, reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol.

Flavonoid polyphenols include catechins, flavonones, flavonols, isoflavones, reservatrol, and anthocyanins.

Non-flavonoid polyphenols include ellagic acid (found in all types of berries).
Your Guide to Nutrients in Heart-Healthy Foods continued…

Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish like salmon) and alpha-linolenic fatty acids (found in plant foods like walnuts) help boost the immune system, reduce blood clots, and protect against heart attacks. They also increase good HDL levels, lower triglyceride levels, protect arteries from plaque buildup, are anti-inflammatories, and lower blood pressure.

B-complex vitamins – like Vitamin B-12 (folate) and vitamin B-6 – protect against blood clots and atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Niacin (vitamin B-3) helps increase HDL “good” cholesterol.

Vitamins C and E are antioxidants that protect cells from free radical damage. Magnesium, potassium, and calciumhelp lower blood pressure. Fiber-rich foods help lower cholesterol levels.