With cardiovascular disease topping the lists for leading causes of death in the U.S., it’s important to take preventative measures to keep your heart healthy. Along with regular exercise and not smoking, a diet that includes diverse food groups is your first line of defense against heart disease.
While there is no single “magic ingredient,” there are certain foods and supplements known for their heart-healthy benefits. Here are five to consider adding to your diet.
Garlic has long been considered one of the best foods for disease prevention. Although larger studies are needed, the scientific community’s overwhelming consensus is that both fresh garlic and aged garlic extract can help to protect the heart from conditions that lead to heart diseases, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Garlic has also been used to boost the immune system and can help prevent heart attacks by keeping arteries free of plaque buildup. In some cases, studies have seen the reversal of plaque buildup, referred to as atherosclerosis, as a result of aged garlic extract.
The hawthorn berry, flower, and leaves and are known for stopping free-radical damage related to heart disease. Even though it’s not often talked about, hawthorn, which belongs to the same plant family as apples and roses, has a long history of treating heart problems. As early as the 1800s, doctors were using it to treat circulatory disorders such as irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, chest pain, hardening of the arteries, and heart failure. Recent studies have shown that hawthorn contains beneficial antioxidants such as oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs), which are also found in grapes.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, hawthorn was found to increase coronary artery blood flow, improve circulation and lower blood pressure in both animal and human studies. Although more studies are needed, several have concluded that hawthorn significantly improved heart function by decreasing palpitations, breathing problems, fatigue, and chest pain. By improving the amount of blood pumped out of the heart during contractions, hawthorn works to help widen blood vessels and increase the transmission of signals between nerves.
Research also suggests that hawthorn can help lower your bad cholesterol levels and reduce fatty triglycerides in the blood by not only reducing the formation of cholesterol itself but by also enhancing the receptors for LDLs (low-density lipoprotein, AKA the “bad one”).
Hawthorn is widely available as a supplement.
Important: The use of herbs can potentially trigger side effects and interact with other herbs or medications. Always speak with your health care provider before adding anything to your routine.
3. Fish Oil
Most health experts agree that eating your nutrients directly from food (versus supplements) is the best way to benefit from them. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, therefore, are best consumed by eating fish. It’s no wonder that the Mediterranean diet is being lauded as the best diet for promoting cardiovascular health: the omega-3s found in fish keep your heart healthy, protect against stroke and can even help improve your heart health if you already suffer from heart disease.
Because our bodies don’t produce omega-3s on their own, we need to get them from fish such as salmon, mackerel, Albacore tuna, trout, sardines; and plant-based foods such as ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, chia seeds, canola oil, soybeans, soybean oil, and tofu.
The benefits are numerous. Research shows that omega-3s can cause a major reduction in triglycerides, reduce blood pressure, raise HDL cholesterol (the “good one”), prevent blood clots and plaque from forming and even reduce our body’s inflammatory responses in general.
Aim to eat fish high in DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids two to three times per week for the most benefits, but watch out for fish known to have higher levels of mercury, such as wild swordfish, tilefish, and shark. In addition, farm-raised fish of all types are known to have more contaminants in general, so eat wild-caught fish when possible.
Our bodies produce Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) naturally. It is compound is used for cell growth and for protecting cells against the damage that leads to cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, a coenzyme helps an enzyme do its job. An enzyme is a protein that speeds up the rate at which natural chemical reactions take place in cells of the body. Our bodies use CoQ10 as an antioxidant to protect against free-radical damage. The highest amount of CoQ10 is found in the heart, liver, kidneys, and pancreas. The same is true in organs from animal meat and seafood, but CoQ10 supplements are widely available.
Research has shown that CoQ10 may help with heart-related conditions because it can improve energy production in cells, prevent blood clots and act as an antioxidant, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. There is also evidence that CoQ10 can help treat heart failure combined with traditional medication, and can help lower blood pressure and high cholesterol.
There are two kinds of fiber: Insoluble fiber is found in whole grains and vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, carrots, celery, and tomatoes; soluble fiber is found in barley, oatmeal, beans, nuts and fruits such as apples, berries, citrus fruits and pears. Both soluble and insoluble fiber are linked to good heart health because fiber plays a key role in regulating blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
According to Harvard University’s Harvard Heart Letter, people whose diets are high in fiber are less likely to have problems related to metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Those conditions increase your chances of developing heart disease and having a stroke because they often go hand-in-hand with too much belly fat, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar.
Although most people associate fiber with a healthy digestive system, the perks for the cardiovascular system are not touted as much. However, soluble fiber reduces the absorption of cholesterol in your intestines by binding it with bile (which also contains cholesterol). The body then excretes it, preventing plaque from forming around the arteries.
Try inducing more fiber to your diet slowly, over the course of a few weeks, to allow your gut flora to adjust naturally to the changes:
- Aim for four or more servings of vegetables per day and three or more servings of fruit.
- Switch to salads for lunch or dinner.
- Buy or make more vegetable-based soups.
- Keep fruits and veggies on hand for midday snacks.
- Try to prepare one meatless, vegetable-based meal per week (“Meatless Monday”).
- Add bananas or berries to your whole-grain cereal or waffles.
- Vary your dessert routine with fruit.