You’re never too young to start eating for your arteries—blockages can start early. Science shows that these foods could be your ticker’s best friend.
Keep your heart healthy
The number one killer in the United States is heart disease: According to the CDC, 610,000 people die from it every year—that is about one out of every four deaths. The cause is clogged arteries, and things like calcium, plaque, and fatty acids can do the damage. “There is no one magic food that acts like Drano and cleans out the accumulated plaque,” says Florian Rader, MD, a cardiologist at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “But good habits can help slow down that process, and maintaining a healthy weight and diet is one factor you can control to a great degree. And,” he says, “It’s never too late to start.”
It’s been more than 20 years since the FDA approved heart-healthy claims for these whole grains, and research keeps uncovering new benefits. The main one, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table, is their rich supply of soluble fiber, which has been shown to lower bad LDL cholesterol levels. Why that’s good for your arteries, according to Dr. Rader: “Cholesterol can seep into the inner layer of blood vessels and form plaque over time.” Since most Americans fall chronically short on fiber, the four grams per cup that oats deliver are a welcome addition.
In addition to being a great source of soluble fiber—black beans have three times as much of it per cup as oats—studies have found that bean-rich diets may help make arteries more elastic, contributing to lower blood pressure. Another perk: Antioxidants, which are especially abundant in colorful varieties such as black beans and red kidney beans, may fight the inflammation that contributes to heart disease. Check out these 10 heart-healthy meals cardiologists make for themselves.
These protein-packed discs come from the same legume family as beans, which means that they pack many similar benefits. Preliminary research in rats found that lentils appear to reverse the damage to blood vessels caused by high blood pressure. Plus, lentils are at the top of the food spectrum for protein and fiber content, with very little fat, and contain calcium, potassium, and magnesium—all minerals that can help lower blood pressure. Find out the best and worst diets for heart health.
A lot of the research on omega-3 fatty acids focuses on brain health, but these potent anti-inflammatories have benefits for your ticker, too. Research links inflammation inside your body to a number of chronic diseases and conditions, including plaque buildup, says Dr. Rader. So there’s speculation that reducing inflammation might reduce plaque in your arteries. Eating fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel is one way to get your fill of omega-3s, so try to eat some at least twice a week, says Taub-Dix.
Fat of any kind used to be at the top of the list of things that are bad for your heart. Not anymore: Research reveals that mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in avocados, are heart healthy because they help lower bad LDL cholesterol and raise good HDL cholesterol, says Taub-Dix. These green fruits also contain a decent amount of fiber. Read more about the heart-healthy benefits of avocados.
Another green giant as far as heart health goes, these fibrous stalks are rich in quercetin, a phytonutrient that prevents plaque from sticking to your arteries. “Whether you have a family history of heart disease or are simply trying to prevent it, asparagus should be at the top of your shopping list,” Ansel says. Find out the 10 healthiest vegetables you can eat, including for cardiovascular health.
The reason cardiologists seem obsessed with taking your blood pressure? When it’s elevated, it can eventually wear out the lining of your blood vessels, leaving them less elastic and able to function normally. That can increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke. This juicy melon can help. “Watermelon is the number one source of citrulline,” says Ansel. Citrulline is an amino acid the body uses to produce nitric oxide, which helps keep your blood vessels relaxed and pliable.
You’ve been told for years that carbs are bad. But whole grains—even in bread and pasta—can be part of a heart-healthy diet. According to an analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, for every ten grams of whole grains people eat each day, their risk of heart disease dropped 14 percent; even better, their odds of dying from a heart attack fell 25 percent. This may be because whole grains are loaded with fiber, says Angela Lemond, RD, a Plano, Texas-based nutritionist and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Fiber helps pull cholesterol out of the body. It is also known to help promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut, which can have an indirect benefit on heart health.” Try swapping refined grains for unprocessed ones to reap the benefits.
Milk with DHA
As aging arteries stiffen up, says Lemond, they can begin to restrict your blood flow. Omega-3 fatty acids help maintain vessel elasticity—especially one known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It’s most commonly found in seafood, but if you’re not a fish fan, try DHA-fortified milk and eggs. Read about the 12 lifesaving breakthroughs in heart health.
Yes, you can have potatoes—just not all the time. Spuds are full of potassium: They give you more than double the amount in an average banana. That’s key because only 3 percent of Americans are getting their RDA of potassium, and it’s helpful in regulating your blood pressure. Potatoes also have a decent amount of fiber, so as long as you don’t deep-fry them or slather them in butter and sour cream, they can be a surprisingly healthy choice.
Cocoa beans are rich in flavanols—plant compounds that have antioxidant properties and may benefit your heart. A 2017 analysis of the research done on chocolate published in the journal Nutrients found that people who regularly ate chocolate (in moderation) had a lower risk of heart failure. Nutritionists recommend dark chocolate over other types—that high cacao percentage (above 70 percent) means the bar has more beneficial compounds.
Like a lot of beans, coffee beans—and the java you get from them—deliver healthy antioxidants. In research, coffee seems to lower the incidence of cardiac disease; the caffeine may also help your ticker. When scientists recently gave mice the caffeine equivalent of four cups of coffee, they discovered that the cells lining the mice’s blood vessels began to work more efficiently.
While most nutritional guidelines acknowledge that a little wine (and other types of alcohol) in moderation may be good for your heart, they do so with a strong caution, says Dr. Rader. He points out that there’s no direct cause and effect—researchers haven’t established that drinking wine lowers your risk; they only know that people with a lower risk of heart disease tend to drink wine. That’s why no one is handing out free passes to drink as much as you want: Limit yourself to no more than one four-ounce glass of wine a day if you’re a woman—two for men. Although you might get similar benefits with any type of alcohol, you may want to stick with the red wine: It has an anti-aging compound called resveratrol, which also helps lower inflammation.
Yep, science really messed up this one: Heart specialists used to warn people to stay away from eggs because they have a lot of cholesterol. But the research is now pretty clear that the cholesterol in your food has very little impact on the levels in your blood, says Taub-Dix. In fact, fats in eggs seem to boost the good HDL cholesterol in your blood (it helps prevent the buildup of plaque in vessel walls). A study published in the journal Heart found that eating eggs daily was associated with an 11 percent drop in the risk for heart disease. Don’t miss these 30 ways to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
They’re fiber- and antioxidant-rich, and one study, published in Circulation: The Journal of the American Heart Association, found that eating three servings a week may slash the risk of a heart attack by a third in women. Researchers credit anthocyanins, compounds in berries that may help dilate blood vessels, making it easier for blood to pass through. Find out the 10 things you can do to keep your heart valves healthy.
Benefits abound in this brew—and British researchers recently found an exciting new bonus: They were focusing on a compound known as EGCG, which has shown promise in treating Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that the same molecule could shrink fatty deposits on artery walls. In previous research, scientists demonstrated that green tea could lower bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, too.
Probiotics get a lot of attention because they support the populations of healthy bacteria in your gut. But did you know that you can repopulate your intestines with the good healthy bacteria found in foods like kimchi, yogurt, and kombucha? Emerging research indicates that the foods (and the bacteria they contain) may help lower your blood pressure and bad LDL cholesterol levels. Read more about the best foods to eat to avoid clogged arteries.