February marks the official beginning of American Heart Month. This initiative to spread awareness about what can be done to better support heart health is of necessary importance, as the statistics around cardiovascular diseases (CVDs)—which the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as “a group of disorders of the heart and blood vessels and include coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, rheumatic heart disease, and other conditions”—are honestly quite bleak.
Research from the WHO notes that “CVDs are the leading cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year. […] More than four out of five CVD deaths are due to heart attacks and strokes.” According to the CDC, “about 697,000 people in the United States died from heart disease in 2020—that’s [one] in every [five] deaths.” A recent report from the American Heart Association also found that “in 2020, [approximately] 19 million deaths were attributed to CVD globally, which amounted to an increase of 18.7% from 2010.”
But all is not lost! Living an active lifestyle coupled with following a healthy diet is the best preventative measure you can take to proactively support heart health and ensure you live a long, healthy life. Best of all, you can start incorporating these elements into your regular routine in small, subtle ways. When it comes to forging the best habits to support cardiovascular health, something as minor as choosing the right foods and drinks in the present can potentially benefit your heart big time in the future.
To help get you on the right track with your diet in ways that can effectively support your heart health, we asked dietitians about which foods and drinks are ideal picks for reducing your risk of cardiovascular complications. Here’s what they advise!
“Eggs are recommended as part of a heathy eating pattern by both the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association (AHA). In fact, the AHA indicates that ‘healthy individuals can include up to a whole egg or equivalent daily’ as part of a heart-healthy dietary pattern,” explains Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LD, CLEC, author of The First Time Mom’s Pregnancy Cookbook, The 7 Ingredient Healthy Pregnancy Cookbook, and Fueling Male Fertility.
“For older normocholesterolemic patients, given the nutritional benefits and convenience of eggs, consumption of up to two eggs per day is acceptable within the context of a heart-healthy dietary pattern,” advises Manaker. “Data suggests that eating up to one egg per day may lead to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. Other data suggests that eggs contain antioxidant properties, which may play a role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.”
According to the Nutrition Twins, Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT, CLT, and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT, CLT, munching on nuts can be an excellent way to support your heart health because of how these plant-based snacks can help regulate your cholesterol.
“Research has found that people who regularly eat nuts are less likely to have heart attacks or die from heart disease than those people who rarely eat them. Nuts lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and triglycerides, which both build up in arteries and develop plaques, which are linked to heart disease,” say The Nutrition Twins. “An analysis of over 210,000 people who were followed for up to 32 years found that people who ate an ounce of nuts five or more times each week had a 14% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20% lower risk of coronary heart disease than those who rarely ate nuts during the study period.”
Manaker adds that pistachios, in particular, are effective deterrents against cardiovascular issues because of how their antioxidant properties help defend your body against free radicals, consequently supporting your heart health.
“Pistachios are a food that may help combat the effects free radicals may have on the body, which can, in turn, support heart health,” Manaker says. “Free radicals attack healthy body cells, and this damage is thought to contribute to inflammation and the buildup of oxidative stress. Collectively, this can accelerate aging at the cellular level while also playing a foundational role in promoting chronic health conditions, including heart disease.”
“A study conducted by Cornell University and published in the journal Nutrients found that pistachios have a high antioxidant capacity,” Manaker continues. “In fact, the antioxidant capacity of pistachios rivals that of popular antioxidant-containing foods, including blueberries, pomegranates, cherries, and red wine. Research shows that pistachios can have beneficial effects on weight management, cholesterol, blood sugar control, and heart health.”
“Green and black tea are sources of a plant compound called flavan-3-ols. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently provided guidance about how many flavan-3-ols we should be consuming every day to support many factors of our health, including our heart health,” says Manaker. “Drinking two cups of green or black tea a day will provide enough flavan-3-ols to meet the 400–600 milligram recommendation.”
“Eating whole grains like brown rice, barley, rye, quinoa, and whole wheat are associated with lower systolic blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and a lower risk of heart disease,” say the Twins. “A research analysis of over 45 studies showed that consuming three or more servings of whole grains a day was associated with a 22% lower risk of heart disease. Avoid the refined, processed grains like white bread and processed snacks that actually can increase the risk of heart disease.”
Oats, in particular, are an excellent whole grain to aid in reducing your risk of heart disease because they are rich in soluble fiber, a nutrient that is linked to cholesterol management and reduced risk of heart disease. As Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, award-winning nutrition expert and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Diabetes Create Your Plate Meal Prep Cookbook explains, “Oats contain a type of fiber called soluble fiber that has been shown to help lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol. The FDA also has a health claim with regard to soluble fiber that makes the connection between consuming diets high in fruits, vegetables, and grain products like oats, foods that contain soluble fiber, [and the risk of coronary heart disease.] It may be useful to add [these items] to a diet that is also low in saturated fat in order to help lower LDL cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease.”
“Wild blueberries contain anthocyanins, nutrients, and fiber that have been associated with improved cardiovascular risk profiles. Their anthocyanins help blood vessels to function better and remain healthier, so the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to circulate blood throughout the body,” say the Nutrition Twins. “Wild blueberries are sweet and delicious and they’re perfect for adding to baked goods and smoothies, topping cereal and yogurt, and just eating plain.”
Amidor, who is also a partner with the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, explains that “fresh and frozen blueberries offer a variety of beneficial nutrients that support heart health. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), a healthy dietary pattern, which includes a higher intake of fruits, is associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease.”
“A new research study published in Clinical Nutrition found that the equivalent of one cup of fresh blueberries, consumed as 26 grams of freeze-dried blueberries, may reduce the acute cardiometabolic burden of energy-dense meals,” Amidor adds. “This emerging study finds that adding anthocyanin-rich blueberries to a high-calorie, high-fat/high-sugar meal results in reduced insulin and glucose levels, lower total cholesterol, and improved good cholesterol (HDL-C) in the 24 hours following the meal. These findings are noteworthy because elevated post-meal glucose and impaired glucose tolerance are associated with increased heart disease risk, which is already elevated in people with metabolic syndrome.”
“While further studies are needed, the results suggest that adding just a single cup serving of anthocyanin-rich foods like blueberries to high-fat/high-sugar and energy-dense meals can help reduce the increases in risk markers like glucose, insulin, and cholesterol,” says Amidor.
“One hundred percent orange juice—not a blend with added sugars—contains a slew of heart health-supporting nutrients like vitamin C, potassium, and folate,” says Manaker. “Citrus fruits contain unique plant compounds called hesperidin and naringenin. Intake of these compounds has been linked to many heart health benefits, including a reduced risk of stroke. One meta-analysis showed that there are beneficial effects of chronic orange juice consumption on blood pressure and good cholesterol levels among overweight and obese adults.”
“Tomatoes are nutrient powerhouses and rich sources of heart-protective antioxidants and nutrients including lycopene, beta-carotene, folate, potassium, vitamin C, flavonoids, and vitamin E,” the Nutrition Twins explain. “Research shows that the nutrients in tomatoes reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, homocysteine—a measure of inflammation and an independent risk factor for heart disease—and make the cells less ‘sticky,’ which keeps blood flowing more easily.”
“Many of the antioxidants in tomatoes, like lycopene and beta-carotene, become as much as four times more bioavailable when they’re cooked,” the Twins add. “So although adding fresh tomatoes to salads, burritos, sandwiches and wraps is great, don’t be afraid to add them to cooked meals like chili, stews, sauces, and cooked dishes or to eat them in tomato sauce, as well.”
“Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation throughout the body,” the Nutrition Twins say. “Inflammation damages the blood vessels and leads to heart attack and strokes. Omega-3s can help to decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure, reduce irregular heartbeats, and decrease the risk of stroke and heart failure.”
“Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include sardines, cod, herring, Atlantic mackerel, and lake trout,” they add. “Aim for at least two servings per week.”
According to the Nutrition Twins, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts are also great for fortifying your heart health and decreasing your risk for cardiovascular-related complications.
“Higher intake of cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease events, like heart attacks and strokes,” the Nutrition Twins explain.”Broccoli’s key players when it comes to protecting against heart disease include selenium and the powerful antioxidant sulforaphane.”
“Brussels sprouts are powerful heart protectors. Research shows that cruciferous veggies like Brussels sprouts may help to prevent clogged arteries, which is a large cause of heart attacks and strokes,” the Nutrition Twins add. “Many of the heart-healthy benefits of Brussels sprouts are credited to their fiber, carotenoids, folate, fiber, and vitamins C, E, and K, as well as their sulfur compounds, which are called glucosinolates, which have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capabilities that help to protect cells against damage and that lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.”
“Try adding Brussels sprouts to salads and stir-fries, pasta and rice dishes, and roast them in olive oil and garlic,” the Nutrition Twins suggest.