A heart-smart lifestyle starts with the foods on your plate. Improve your diet with these tasty choices that contain the top nutrients your heart needs, from vitamins and minerals to antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
“Most people know that heart-healthy foods are a big part of heart health. The key is educating them on how to make changes in their diet,” says Cindy Neels, MPH, RD, LDN, a dietitian with the cardiac rehabilitation program at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. Great heart-healthy foods that include antioxidants, lean proteins, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids will all help you maintain a healthy weight and keep your lipid levels in check for better heart health — and best of all, they taste good, too.
Salmon Delivers Omega-3 Fatty Acids
like salmon contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and are a great source of lean protein,” says Neels. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids because they are important for heart health — and your body can’t make them. That means you need to include them in your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower your bad cholesterol and increase your good cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish like salmon, tuna, and halibut at least two times every week.
Go Nuts for Walnuts
“Walnuts and other nuts have plenty ofomega-3 fatty acids
, but they are also high in calories,” says Neel, so stick with a handful. “You also want to eat them without salt.” Studies show that walnuts can lower bad cholesterol levels, as well as lowering a chemical called endothelin that contributes to the inflammation that causes plaques to form in coronary arteries. Also to consider: Nut oils are one of the highest sources of dietary omega-3 fatty acids for heart health.
Try Blueberries for an Antioxidant Boost
“Blueberries are packed withantioxidants
, which help remove free radicals that can cause damage to heart cells,” says Neels. Free radicals are harmful molecules that get into your system when you break down foods and from environmental pollutants such as tobacco smoke. These molecules contribute to heart disease, so foods with antioxidants are especially good for heart health.
Mom Was Right: Eat Your Spinach
“Spinach is a really great heart-healthy food,” says Neels. “Spinach has just about everything your heart needs, including plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber.” Spinach is particularly rich in the water-soluble B vitamin called folate
. Folate is important for building and maintaining healthy cells, especially healthy red blood cells needed for heart health.
Use Olive Oil for Heart-Healthy Fat
Olive oil, an unsaturated fat, is one of the key ingredients of the Mediterranean diet, and studies have found that people who follow a Mediterranean diet
are less likely to develop heart disease. Unsaturated fat has the ability to lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, so it’s excellent for heart health. Olive oil also adds a rich taste to cooking and makes a great salad dressing for heart-healthy greens when paired with a little red wine vinegar or lemon juice.
Enjoy Natural Whole Grains for Fiber
The grains in whole-wheat breads and other whole grain products are great heart-healthy foods. “These whole grains
reduce bad cholesterol and add an important source of fiber,” says Neels. “Since fiber fills you up and slows down your digestion, it is important for maintaining a healthy weight.” In addition to whole wheat, barley and oats are other good options to include in your diet. Natural whole grains deliver B vitamins, iron, and magnesium for heart health.
Opt for Brown Rice Instead of White
The difference between brown and white is the difference between whole and refined grains
. When grain products like rice, pasta, and bread are refined, the outer kernel of the grain is removed, and so are most of their heart-healthy food benefits. The outer capsule of the grain is where most of the vitamins and fiber are. Think of that capsule as a slow-release pill — grains with their capsule are always better for heart health.
Eat Poultry for Lean Protein
Although you should base your heart-healthy diet around fruits and vegetables, you also need protein
. Saturated fats in many meat proteins are not heart-healthy foods, but poultry can be. “Chicken or turkey without the skin is a great source of lean protein, almost as lean as fish,” notes Neels. Watch out for chicken that is pre-marinated or self-basting, such as rotisserie chicken. These products may have lots of added salt and calories that are not conducive to heart health.
Be Mindful of Other Meats
“Other than chicken, the best lean meat for heart health protein is pork tenderloin
,” says Neels. If you just have to have some red meat, round steaks, roasts, tip loin, top sirloin, and chuck shoulder are better for you than other cuts. “Read the label carefully if you are buying ground beef,” advises Neels. “‘Reduced fat’ ground beef can still be close to 30 percent fat. You can get down as low as 3 percent if you look for it.”
Substitute Beans for Meat
Dried beans are a great meat substitute. For optimum heart health, at least once a week, base a meal around beans instead of meat. “Beans are non-fat, high protein, and fiber-rich, so they are great heart-healthy foods,” says Neel. One final thought as you cook with beans and other heart-healthy foods is to reduce your salt intake. Too much salt is a major cause of high blood pressure and heart disease. Try using fresh herbs and a little touch of antioxidant-rich lemon juice to flavor your foods in place of salt.
Copyright © 2012 Everyday Health, Inc.