We all know regular exercise and a nutritious diet are critical to keeping our hearts (and waistlines) in shape. In fact, research shows along with smart lifestyle choices, a heart-healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by 80%. But did you ever wonder how certain nutrients actually work inside the body to safeguard your health? Here’s the simple science behind seven essential nutrients that are especially good to your heart, veins, and arteries – and how to get more of them on your plate.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Research shows Omega-3s support heart health by lowering the risk of irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and decreasing plaque build-up in the arteries (atherosclerosis). They also help maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The best sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are oily fishes like salmon, tuna, trout, and sardines. Over the long term, eating two or more (3.5-ounce) servings of oily fish per week can reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease by 30%. If fish is not your favorite, Omega-3 fatty acids are also abundant in flaxseeds or the superfood du jour: chia seeds. Both can be blended into your morning smoothie or sprinkled on yogurt, soups, and salads – even desserts.
Now that we’ve established there is such a thing as “good” fat…when eaten in moderation and used in place of “bad” saturated and trans fats, monounsaturated fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood. They’ve also been shown to help with blood sugar control and have an anti-inflammatory effect that prevents the hardening of artery walls. Monounsaturated fats can be found in foods like avocados, plant-based liquid oils (especially extra virgin olive oil), and nuts. In fact, nibbling on just 5 ounces of nuts each week (try walnuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios, or pecans) could cut your risk of heart disease in half!
One of the major electrolytes, potassium helps the heart squeeze blood through your body with every single heartbeat – that's a hundred thousand times a day. Getting enough of this essential mineral may help prevent blood vessels from thickening and keep systolic blood pressure (the top number) in check. When it comes to getting potassium in our diets, bananas are often the default. But there are many more exciting options that actually provide more potassium per serving, including watermelon, beets, Greek yogurt, butternut squash, and edamame. Sweet potatoes actually rank highest on the list of potassium-rich foods. Baked, grilled, mashed, or microwaved, they’re not just for Thanksgiving.
Responsible for more than 300 biochemical reactions, every organ in the body needs magnesium to function properly. When it comes to matters of the heart, magnesium has been shown to relax blood vessels, normalize heartbeat, and regulate blood pressure, which can cut your risk for a heart attack or stroke. The good news is this important mineral can be found in a wide variety of foods, from whole-grain cereals to dark leafy greens, especially spinach. Toss baby spinach with other good sources like beans, quinoa, summer squash, tofu, or pumpkin seeds and you have the makings of a magnificent heart-healthy salad.
Fiber is best known for its ability to keep things “moving,” but it may also significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol. In your digestive track, soluble fiber acts like a sponge, sopping up cholesterol and eliminating it before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Oats, oat bran, and oatmeal all boast a super type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan that works as a top-notch lipid-lowering agent. Opting for a bowl of oatmeal a day to keep the doctor away? Most instant oatmeal brands are loaded with added sugar. So go for the old-fashioned or quick-cooking kind instead – and spruce it up with a healthy handful of fruits, seeds, or nuts.
Lycopene is a carotenoid that belongs to the same family of chemicals as the better-known beta-carotene (i.e. carrots). A super-powerful antioxidant, lycopene may help protect cells from damage. It has also been associated with reducing inflammation and cholesterol and preventing blood clots – all of which help keep blood vessels open. To get enough lycopene in your diet, regularly enjoy red and pink colored fruits and vegetables like grapefruit, guava, watermelon, and tomatoes. Some studies show lycopene becomes more bioavailable (more easily absorbed and used by the body) when cooked, so homemade pasta and pizza sauces are definitely on the table. What about making your own ketchup too? Doctor up your recipe with roasted garlic or sriracha for a robust condiment that will score points with your heart and the ones you love.
Flavanols are natural plant compounds that can boost overall heart health by lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and preventing blood clots. They also act as an antioxidant to keep “bad” cholesterol from sticking to artery walls. But here’s the best news: foods and beverages rich in flavanols include green tea, pomegranates, blackberries, red grapes, red wine – and dark chocolate. Yum. For the biggest benefit, choose a dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content to get more antioxidant action (and less sugar) and limit it to no more than one ounce per day. Because dark chocolate is bitter in flavor, pair it with fresh fruit or a glass of fruity red wine to add a little sweetness and decadence.
Cheers to making every day a happy heart day, because Life is Why.
Diane Bobis is a freelance food and lifestyle writer who is slightly obsessed with Sting, gummy bears, and the formidable length of her little boy's eyelashes.