10 Foods to Boost Heart Health
As a registered dietitian who has spent my career trying to walk the talk of eating well, I was taken aback last year to learn that my cholesterol had ticked up. Though my HDL or “good” cholesterol was great, my LDL or “bad” cholesterol had moved above the recommended range. It’s not an uncommon change with the decline in estrogen that comes with aging, but I was concerned. Heart disease is serious business, after all, the leading cause of death among women in the U.S. Plus, higher LDL is also associated with increased risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.
Improving Heart Health
With my cholesterol numbers in hand, I set about making tweaks to my diet in hopes of nudging my LDL down. I focused mostly on what to eat MORE of to improve my numbers, while at the same time minimizing the saturated fat in my diet (which raises LDL and increases risk for cardiovascular disease). Fast forward to last month when my blood work showed a notable improvement, with my HDL/LDL ratio back in a healthy range. This being heart health month, I figured it was a good time to share my story and to talk through 10 foods that can promote heart health.
A Healthy Heart Is More Than What You Eat
Before I dig in, let me mention that it’s not all about food. Genetics play a role in heart disease risk, as does exercise, smoking, sleep, and stress. But since we’re all about the food here at Mom’s Kitchen Handbook, that’s the focus, starting with ten tasty ingredients to do right by your ticker. And if you’re looking for some recipe inspo, I curated 20 Heart Healthy Recipes to get you started.
10 Foods to Boost Heart Health
Snacking on nuts at least four times a week has been linked to improved heart health, thanks in part to their anti-inflammatory properties. Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, and pistachios have all been found to lower LDL cholesterol. Seeds, such as sunflower, pumpkin, hemp, chia, and flax have similar benefits. Flax, chia, and hemp seeds, along with walnuts, are particularly of interest, since they’re a plant-based source of prized Omega-3 fats. Nuts and seeds are also an excellent way to get fiber and protein onto your plate (3 tablespoons of hemp seeds, for example, has nearly 10 grams of protein). While there isn’t consensus about the amount you need to eat for maximum benefit, ¼ cup nuts, 2 to 3 tablespoons of seeds, and 1 to 2 tablespoons of nut butter is something to aim for. Here are a few handy ways to work them into your everyday diet:
- Make a nut & seed trail mix, dividing it into ¼ cup portions. It’s a great swap for less nutrient-dense options, such as pretzels and chips.
- You can successfully substitute almond, hazelnut, or walnut flour for one-quarter of the all-purpose flour in cakes, muffins, bars, and cookies (these Chocolate Chip Cookies are a good example). Make your own nut flour by running raw nuts through your blender or food processor.
- Stock almond butter, peanut butter, or sunflower butter to spread on apple slices, whole-grain bread, or celery.
- Make a batch of my Chocolate Hemp Amazebars, which are a nut and seed powerhouse (and awfully tasty, too).
Tip: Store glass jars filled with nuts and seeds right at eye level in your fridge so you remember to add them to hot cereal, salads, vegetables, toast, or smoothies.
The American Heart Association recommends eight ounces of fish per week (2 four-ounce servings is a good way to think about it). That’s in large part because fish is such a good source of Omega-3 fats, most especially fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, trout, mackerel, and cod. Even better, swap fatty meats, which are high in saturated fat, and enjoy fish instead. It’s a win win. If you’re wondering about fish oil supplements, the research isn’t conclusive. I always think whole food is best, but If you don’t like fish or have a hard time getting it into your diet, fish oil supplements may be your best bet.
Here are a few easy ideas for adding more fish:
- Keep a can of tuna or salmon in your pantry to turn into salads. For tuna sandwiches, I swap in non-fat Greek yogurt for some of the mayonnaise to cut the added fat, plus lots of lemon!
- Stash frozen salmon, salmon burgers, or other fish filets in your freezer. They’re relatively quick to defrost and tasty in this easy curry dish and these salmon burger lettuce wraps.
- Add canned sardines to a snack board supper with whole-grain crackers or crusty bread.
- Enjoy anchovies! They’re not scary and really elevate so many dishes. Add four to five oil-packed anchovies to your next pot of red sauce for pasta or try this anchovy vinaigrette I developed for Simply Recipes.
Tip: Though rich in Omega-3s, some fish are high in the environmental pollutant mercury. This might provide some useful information when it comes to buying seafood.
Eating oats on a regular basis has been found to lower LDL cholesterol, thanks to its soluble fiber. I like to boost the fiber even further by adding a few teaspoons of psyllium husks to my oatmeal. In addition to tosimple oatmeal, here are a few ways to eat more oats:
- Add ¼ cup or more to your smoothies. It adds fiber and gives smoothies a bit more body.
- Prepare these grab-and-go blueberry pecan oatmeal cups, which are terrific for breakfast and make a great snack, too. The combo of oats, nuts, and berries makes it a heart health superstar.
- Try a batch of homemade granola or swap these peanut butter granola bars for cookies or other treats.
Tip: Oats don’t just have to be for sweet dishes. Try making a batch of steel cut oats to enjoy with savory toppings, such as a drizzle of olive oil, sautéed spinach, and a poached egg. You’ll find a recipe like this in my book Rise & Shine.
It’s for good reason that brain health expert Annie Fenn recommends ½ cup of berries a day. They’re loaded with antioxidants, which fight chronic inflammation and can help prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing (when oxidized cholesterol builds up in the arteries, it increases risk for cardiovascular disease). Different berries have different nutritional benefits, so enjoy what you like and go for variety.
- Use them as the foundation for breakfast and snack smoothies.
- Add them to baked goods, such as muffins and quickbreads.
- Spoon onto breakfast toast with nut butter, onto yogurt, and in hot cereal.
- Enjoy in savory dishes, such as green salads, roasts, and vegetable dishes, such at this sheet pan chicken with wild blueberries.
- Don’t overlook savory berries, which also have benefits, including capers, caper berries, pink peppercorns, and sumac.
Tip: Since berries can be pricey, particularly when they’re not in season, stock up on frozen ones. They’re just and good for you as fresh, often go on sale, and are available at many budget-friendly stores.
Beans & Legumes
Beans and legumes are high in fiber, including soluble fiber, which can have a cholesterol-lowering effect. There is also evidence to suggest that dietary fiber helps regulate blood pressure and helps control blood sugar, both associated with heart health. Also a plus? They’re a source of protein, so are a natural swap for meat. As for any concerns about the anti-nutrient lectin in beans, proper cooking eliminates lectins almost entirely. Lastly, be sure to rinse canned beans well, since it will cut the sodium by about 40 percent.
- Stock a few different types of canned beans for quick and easy meals. This 3-ingredient black bean soup is a good start.
- Add beans and chickpeas to salads and soups. Use black, pinto, or cannellini beans for some of the ground beef or turkey in chili, tacos, and pasta sauces.
- Experiment with different lentils, such as quick cooking red lentils, black, and green lentils. I love this Red Lentil Soup, as well as this French Lentil Salad (you can make it even quicker by buying cooked, refrigerated lentils from the market).
Tip: If you want to add more beans to your diet, do it gradually so your system can adjust. In time, they won’t likely cause the pesky gas and bloating associated with eating beans.
Research suggests that two to three daily cups of green or black tea is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Both black and green tea are rich in beneficial polyphenols, but green tea outpaces black tea in this regard. Plus, green tea is lower in caffeine, so you may be able to drink more without getting the jitters.
- Consider swapping some of your daily coffee with green or black tea.
- During the warm weather months, keep a pitcher of iced green tea in the fridge to keep you hydrated. Note: it’s best to brew the tea hot and then refrigerate for maximum benefits.
- Add matcha powder to your smoothies or hot cereal.
- Enjoy the ritual of making matcha by whisking together 1 teaspoon matcha powder with 1/4 cup hot water, then add 2/3 cup of warm milk. Add a dash of ginger, cardamom, or cinnamon (plus a teaspoon of honey for sweetness, if desired).
Tip: For maximum benefits, steep tea for three minutes. Green tea is best when steeped in hot, but not boiling water (180℉). Black tea can be seeped at a higher temperature (200℉).
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is is my go-to fat in the kitchen for a good reason. Beyond the fact that I love the flavor, it’s a highly cardio-protective ingredient. Research shows that olive oil can help lower bad cholesterol, may bump up good cholesterol, and can make that good cholesterol more effective in protecting heart health. Olive oil has an even bigger impact when it replaces dietary sources of saturated fat, such as butter and coconut oil.
- Use olive oil in place of some or all of the butter in cakes, muffins, and quick breads, such as this Italian apple cake or this hearty adventure bread.
- Add a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice to steamed and sautéed vegetables instead of butter.
- Read the labels of the food you buy, opting for olive oil as your best bet.
- For very high heat cooking or when I want a more neutral flavor, I opt for avocado oil or expeller-pressed canola oil.
Tip: Keep your olive oil away from heat and light. This will help protect those beneficial polyphenols and make it last longer.
Tofu (and other whole soy foods)
Technically speaking, tofu falls into the legume category, since it’s made from soybeans. But, I wanted to give tofu (and other whole soy foods) its own spotlight for two reasons: 1. It’s rich in isoflavones, which are are linked to lowering LDL cholesterol and preventing plaque build-up in blood vessels. 2. It’s rich in protein, so makes a terrific substitute for saturated fat-rich animal protein.
- Add 1 to 2 ounces of soft or silken tofu to smoothies for added creaminess and protein. I like it in this pineapple orange green smoothie.
- Try this brown sugar bok choy, which replaces most of the pork used in his type of dish with extra-firm tofu.
- Check out these plant-based meatballs. They’re made with another soybean spinoff: tempeh.
All greens are good for you, including kale, collards, chard, arugula, bok choy, dandelion greens, spinach, and more. Indeed, studies show that eating one cup of raw and 1/2 cup cooked greens per day can lower heart disease risk. They’re high in nitrate, which lowers blood pressure, and also deliver fiber, minerals, and phytochemicals. A few ideas:
- Keep a washed-and-ready bag of leafy greens in your fridge, so you can easily add a big handful to eggs, sandwiches, wraps, smoothies, soups, and more.
- Experiment with different herbs and greens for making pesto. Basil is terrific, but so is parsley, mint, kale, and arugula. I like this Kale Sauce from the Six Seasons cookbook.
- Don’t forget that the tops of beets, turnips, parsley, and radishes are leafy greens, too. They can be added to salads, whirled into pesto, or sautéed in olive oil.
Tip: It’s worth noting that too many leafy greens are contraindicated for folks on certain blood thinners, so be sure to explore the topic with your doc.
I figure we need something sweet on this list, and what’s better than dark chocolate? It’s a source of healthy plant polyphenols, which have anti-inflammatory properties. The darker the chocolate the better, since it’s higher in antioxidants and lower in sugar than, say, milk or semi-sweet chocolate. A few suggestions:
- Consider opting for mini, individually wrapped dark chocolate, so that when your sweet tooth strikes, you can keep the portion in check.
- Take a look at my recipe for dark chocolate superfood bark, which quenches that craving and is full of other heart healthy ingredients.
Tip: Look for dark chocolate that’s at last 70 percent cacao for maximum benefits.
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Much gratitude to my nutrition intern Hannah Zimmerman, who contributed research for this post and is credited with all the photographs. You can find more of her work on her website.