The cardiovascular system is the most vital body system, working to deliver nutrients and oxygen to all other areas of the body. At the center of the cardiovascular system is the heart, which is constantly receiving deoxygenated blood to be re-oxygenated and pumped back into circulation. The heart does this 24/7, from the moment we're born until the day we die.
Naturally, when the heart fails, the body shuts down, sometimes for good. Shockingly, cardiovascular disease (CVD) — not cancer — is the leading cause of death in the United States and most first-world countries .
As grim as that sounds, there's good news: the heart is trainable and amenable to change. There are many lifestyle interventions that can drastically reduce the risk of heart disease, and diet is arguably the most important place to start.
Clinical evidence suggests there is a strong correlation between chronic oxidative stress and cardiac arrest (heart failure), atherosclerosis, and heart disease . Foods that are plentiful in micronutrients and antioxidants are essential for mitigating cellular oxidative stress, which then reduces damage to the myocardium — the muscle tissue of the heart — and the likelihood of a heart condition.
So, what are the best heart-healthy foods to include in your diet? Read on as we take a look at nine nutritious foods that protect your heart, according to science.
There is no shortage of evidence that combining a heart-healthy diet with regular exercise can significantly reduce resting heart rate, lower blood pressure, and improve blood lipid profiles, especially in individuals at risk of heart disease and stroke . Grab your grocery shopping list and jot down these nine nutrient-rich foods that promote heart health:
Avocados are an exceptional source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). Contrary to the saturated fat you find in red meat, pork, and lard, the monounsaturated fat in avocados does not clog the arteries or increase LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. In fact, it does the opposite; that is, it reduces LDL cholesterol, increases HDL ("good") cholesterol, and enhances blood lipid profiles .
Note that the fatty acid composition of avocados is similar to olives (and olive oil), so you can't go wrong by getting replacing saturated fat sources in your diet with either of these foods. But of course, be mindful of the calorie content when eating avocados and adding olive oil to recipes, as it can add up quickly.
Tomatoes are one of Mother Nature's richest sources of three potent antioxidants: lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. While these micronutrients are revered for their ability to reduce macular degeneration, they are also essential for protecting the heart through several mechanisms.
Notably, lycopene hinders the activity of an enzyme involved in cholesterol synthesis, consequently lowering LDL ("bad" cholesterol) in the body . High intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin are associated with lower levels of vascular inflammation, and a recent meta-analysis suggests those who consume more of these antioxidants are less likely to develop atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome .
Cardiologists will often advise patients with high cholesterol to consume 10,000 mcg of lycopene daily and a combined 100 mcg of lutein + zeaxanthin, which are the amounts found in about four ounces of tomato juice. Alternatively, you can add some diced tomatoes to foods like salads, omelets, wraps, and sandwiches to get more lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin in your diet.
Per gram, berries, specifically goji berries, acai berries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries, are the densest sources of polyphenol antioxidants in nature. Clinical findings suggest that consumption of the distinct polyphenols found in berries is associated with lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers tied to heart disease . Berry polyphenols, namely anthocyanins, have also been shown to reduce heart tissue degeneration and blood pressure .
Moreover, berries are an excellent source of fiber, with upwards of 5-6 grams in a 150-gram portion (about 1 cup). Whether you buy fresh or frozen varieties, including one to two servings of berries in your diet every day can go a long way for heart health.
Apples contain a bounty of heart-protecting nutrients and are a great snack for just about any time of the day. To no surprise, observational data suggests that those who consume apples regularly are at a lower risk of death from both cardiovascular disease and cardiac arrest .
Apples are packed with several polyphenol antioxidants, as well as being a good source of fiber. Importantly, apples provide a generous amount of a flavonoid known as quercetin, which has been shown to reduce inflammation, decrease the risk of heart attack, and lower blood pressure . As the adage goes, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."
Seafood, especially fatty fish, is the best place to find two essential omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA): eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Extant literature shows that these omega-3s are crucial for lowering LDL cholesterol as well as maintaining healthy blood lipid profiles, which are vital biomarkers when assessing risk for heart disease .
The American Heart Association recommends consuming a combined 2–4 grams of EPA and DHA daily for healthy cardiovascular function and controlling blood pressure; this is the EFA content found in roughly three ounces of fatty freshwater fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, and tuna). Alternatively, an omega-3 supplement can help you meet your daily needs of EPA and DHA.
Spinach, like other leafy green vegetables, is a dense source of water-soluble micronutrients (especially B vitamins). Studies suggest that vitamins B6, B9, and B12, all of which are plentiful in spinach, are crucial regulators of homocysteine levels in the body . Homocysteine is an amino acid your body produces from methionine metabolism and is readily converted to L-cysteine or remethylated to methionine with assistance from the aforementioned B vitamins.
When those B vitamins are lacking in the diet, homocysteine levels increase, leading to chronic inflammation in vascular tissues that comprise blood vessels. Consequently, B vitamin deficiency may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis .
Brazil nuts offer numerous health benefits due to their dense selenium and monounsaturated fatty acid content. In fact, one Brazil nut packs an average of 100 mcg of selenium, nearly twice the RDI for adults. A recent meta-analysis suggests that people with reduced plasma concentrations of selenium are at higher risk of heart disease .
Selenium is a trace mineral that works by binding to certain proteins in the body and creating selenoproteins that thwart platelet aggregation, lipid peroxidation, and inflammation . They may seem expensive, but one pound of Brazil nuts will keep you covered for quite some time when all you need is one nut per day to promote heart health and lower disease risk.
The health benefits of grape polyphenols, particularly those found in red and purple grapes, are quite extensive. Of the many polyphenol classes found in grapes, stilbenes like trans-resveratrol and flavonoids such as quercetin and apigenin tend to get most of the credit for improving heart and metabolic function. These are the putative antioxidants responsible for the blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering benefits of red wine .
But if you prefer red wine over eating grapes, don't get too carried away. More is not better. A glass a day is likely the upper limit necessary for supporting heart health .
Pomegranates contain a promising class of phytochemicals known as ellagitannins, notably a molecule known as ellagic acid. Multiple meta-analyses have found a significant protective effect of pomegranate (and pomegranate) juice towards heart health by reducing systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels, ostensibly due to its ellagitannin content [18, 19].
However, some researchers warn that isolated ellagic acid doesn't confer the same health benefits as the entire spectrum of phytochemicals in pomegranate . As such, taking a pomegranate extract supplement that claims to have a high concentration of ellagic acid is not the same as consuming whole pomegranate fruit or pomegranate juice.
Ironically, many gym-goers and athletes focus purely on getting as ripped and muscular as possible at the expense of neglecting their heart (which is a muscle). It goes without saying that an unhealthy heart will quickly outweigh the advantages of looking a certain way. Frankly, a heart-healthy diet is also a life-extending diet.
The nine heart-healthy foods listed above are sure to add plenty of antioxidants, fiber, omega-3s, and monounsaturated fats to your diet, all of which can help lower the risk of heart disease and support cardiovascular function. If you're someone who struggles to eat a good amount of fruits and vegetables, or you're not a fan of seafood like salmon, mackerel, and tuna, it may be prudent to add a supplemental source of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids to your regimen.
Combining Transparent Labs CoQ10 and Krill Oil makes for an excellent supplement stack that will promote cardiovascular health. But remember, dietary supplements will not make up for poor nutrition habits or lack of exercise (which are integral components of a heart-healthy lifestyle).
Eating more foods that are good for your heart is a great start, but exercise plays a key role as well, so don't forget to move your body and work up a sweat!
And if you're an avid bodybuilder that's afraid of doing cardiovascular exercise for fear it will impede muscle growth, think again; research suggests just the opposite. Read more here: Does Cardio Build Muscle?