It’s said that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but when it comes to avoiding visits to the cardiologist, it’s more than just apples that can do the trick. While many foods, like butter and red meat, contribute to heart disease and lead to many health problems, embracing healthier alternatives has been proven to lower the risk of heart disease.
Heart disease is a pretty important disease to lower the risk of, as it’s the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, one person dies every 34 seconds from heart disease.
Thankfully, there are plenty of foods that can not only make you feel healthy and satisfied, but also work internally to lower the risk of heart disease.
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It’s frequently said that an avocado is a food that contains a lot of healthy fats, but what does that actually mean?
There are several different types of fats, and each of them can impact the body in different ways. Saturated fat is found in foods like butter and red meat and can contribute to health problems including heart disease and obesity if eaten in excess. Other fats are healthier, like polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat, which is found in avocados and can help lower the risk of heart disease.
“Healthy fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, help you absorb certain vitamins and minerals, and they provide certain vitamins and minerals,” says Amy Margulies, RD. “Eaten in moderation, both kinds of unsaturated fats may help improve your blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated and trans fats.”
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and one of the best ways to start the day off is with a bowl of oatmeal. Not only is it full of fiber, which can help keep you full throughout the day, but it’s also a heart-healthy food that can help to lower the risk of heart disease.
“Beta-glucan is a specific type of soluble fiber found readily in oat and barley grains,” says Colleen Christensen, RD. “It has a beneficial role in things like insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and hypertension, and they’ll have a bigger impact on things like cholesterol levels. When this soluble fiber swells it can trap things with it, like fats in your blood, and allow you to excrete them.”
Related: 7 Creative Oatmeal Toppings To Try if You’re Bored of the Same Bowl
3. Plain fat-free yogurt
While it might be tempting to try the sugar-filled, ultra-sweet varieties of yogurt, sticking to a plain, fat-free version is the best option when it comes to preventing heart disease. The nutrients found in the yogurt help to regulate blood pressure, which alleviates stress on the heart.
“Plain, fat-free yogurt packs potassium, magnesium, and calcium, which help promote normal blood pressure,” says Elizabeth Ward, RD. “High blood pressure puts excessive stress on the heart by causing arteries to narrow, making the heart work harder to pump blood which can cause it to weaken.”
It’s fairly well-known that going meat-free is beneficial for the environment, but common meat substitutes like tempeh and tofu, as well as other products made of soy, also have beneficial health impacts on our bodies. Swapping out a beef burger for a veggie burger every once in a while can drastically help lower your risk of developing heart disease.
“Tofu, edamame, and tempeh are rich in several compounds that benefit the heart, including isoflavones, a category of phytonutrients,” Ward says. “Research showed that people who ate just one serving of tofu weekly had a 19% lower risk for heart disease than those who rarely consumed it.”
Sure, berries are a nice accompaniment for breakfast staples like oatmeal, smoothies, pancakes, or French toast, but it’s possible that berries have even more power than being a great side on a breakfast plate: some berries a day can keep potential heart disease away. Berries, which can be eaten on their own or easily added to a plethora of dishes, have a high fiber content, which is beneficial for helping to lower cholesterol, which helps lower the risk of heart disease.
“Berries are high in fiber and high in antioxidants, both of which are great for lowering disease risk,” says Jamie Nadeau, RD. “Research has shown that eating more berries can lower LDL cholesterol and improve blood pressure.”
6. Chia seeds
Meals aren’t centered around chia seeds, instead, they’re the fiber-filled item that’s thrown into a smoothie, or on the top of a salad for a little extra nutrition. Although they’re not the star of meals, chia seeds are extremely beneficial in helping to maintain a healthy heart.
“Chia seeds are high in fiber and high in omega-3 fatty acids, both of which may lower the risk for heart disease,” Nadeau says. “Chia seeds are specifically high in soluble fiber which has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol. High levels of LDL are shown to increase the risk for heart disease.”
Additionally, because of the high fiber content found in chia seeds, they help to promote a feeling of fullness, which will help to deter from overeating and possibly consuming more foods that may lead to heart disease.
7. Leafy greens
Incorporating more leafy greens into your diet is always a healthy choice. Vegetables like kale, arugula, and bok choy, as well as many others, have been associated with a lower risk of obesity, a lowered risk of mental decline, and a lower risk of heart disease.
“Leafy greens, like spinach and kale, are high in fiber and high in antioxidants which both can contribute to lower disease risk,” Nadeau says. “They are also high in nitrates which may be beneficial for heart disease risk because nitrates convert to nitric oxide, which can relax and open blood vessels.”
Cutting meat, specifically red meat, out of your diet is a step in the right direction when it comes to lowering the risk of developing heart disease. But most people aren’t going to become strict vegetarians overnight. Rather than limiting dietary options, try replacing meat with foods like beans, which will not only replace unhealthy fatty meat, but will also serve as a healthy alternative that can lead to a lower risk of heart disease.
“We already know that eating more plant proteins, in place of red meat, can lower heart disease risk, but beans seem to have more benefit over the simple replacement of less healthy foods,” says Laura Yautz, RD. “Beans are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and have been shown to reduce both cholesterol and blood pressure.”
When purchasing canned beans at grocery stores, Yautz recommends choosing low-sodium options.
Related: 7 Ways to Turn a Can of Black Beans into a Healthy Dinner
A kitchen staple in most cultures, garlic is good for more than just making food delicious. The beloved vegetable, which is used for seasoning in a lot of dishes, contains a high amount of phenols, or chemical compounds, which work to help lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure — all of which help to keep your heart healthy.
“Consuming more garlic may help lower your risk of heart disease by way of the many phenols, saponins, and organosulfur compounds, including allicin and captopril, that they contain,” says Kiran Campbell, RD. “Studies show that these have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial factors in addition to cardioprotective benefits, including reducing blood pressure, total cholesterol, and other risk factors related to cardiovascular diseases.”
Salmon is well-known for its many health benefits. Fish contains an abundance of protein, is low in calories, and has a large amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which make it a great food to help lower the risk of heart disease.
“Salmon is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats, and research shows that omega-3s can positively impact cardiovascular health by lowering triglyceride levels, blood pressure, and inflammation,” says Charlotte Martin, RD.
The omega-3s found in fish are so heart-healthy that the American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week, at least, to help maintain heart health and lower the risk of developing heart disease.
Tomatoes help to make salads and sandwiches more flavorful, help to create sauces for delicious pizzas and pasta, and help to protect your heart against the risk of heart disease.
“The red pigment in tomatoes is from a carotenoid called lycopene that has been linked to prostate health in men,” says Wendy Bazilian, RD. “There’s also some evidence that lycopene and other carotenoids along with vitamins A, C, and E in tomatoes may help reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol oxidation, which plays a key role in building plaque in the blood vessels, which can lead to atherosclerosis. Research has shown that women who consume the highest amounts of tomato-based foods have greater protection against heart disease.”
The best thing about tomatoes is that even when they’re out of season and not ideal to eat fresh, you can still use the fruits to make sauces, broths, and juices, ensuring that you’re protecting your heart all year long.
Read next: We Asked Two Cardiologists for Their Top Heart Health Tips
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