As the second leading cause of death in Canada and the number one cause of death in the United States, heart disease has certainly become an epidemic in North America. (10)(19) As with many chronic conditions, there are many factors that come into play in the development of cardiovascular-related diseases, from lifestyle and diet to genetic susceptibility.
Although some factors are out of our control, recent discoveries have revealed impressive research about the impact of including heart-healthy foods in our diets. (8) While there are many foods to avoid for good heart health, such as refined carbohydrates, sugar, and fructose-containing sweeteners, (7) there are also many foods that are beneficial for your heart. Skipping the not-so-good foods means we can make space on our plates for foods that support cardiovascular health.
Top 7 foods for cardio health
Taking good care of your cardiovascular system can be as easy as picking the right foods at the grocery store or local market. Consider regularly incorporating the following seven evidence-based, heart-protective foods into your cooking and eating routines.
Loved and used liberally by many cultures throughout the world, adding garlic to your diet is a simple way to help keep heart disease at bay. Several clinical trials and studies have been conducted on garlic and its sulphur-containing compounds. (14)(20)
Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in seafood such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel, have consistently been shown to positively affect heart health. Specifically, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the polyunsaturated long-chain fatty acids found in seafood that help reduce inflammation and lower elevated triglyceride levels. (17)
Interestingly, DHA in particular, has been shown to increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels and decrease triglyceride levels, two factors that contribute to cardiovascular health. (11)
The American Heart Institute recommends we consume at least two servings of omega 3-rich foods per week. (1) From poached salmon to grilled arctic char, the opportunities are endless when adding one of the best foods for heart health to your plate.
These small but mighty seeds pack a punch when it comes to improving cardiovascular health. Consumed by humans since ancient times, flaxseeds have been used by cultures around the world for dietary and medicinal purposes. The soluble gum in these fiber-rich seeds may play a role in regulating cholesterol levels. (13)
Extra-virgin olive oil, commonly known as EVOO, is one of the cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet, a heart-healthy eating program. Clinical research has shown that its cardioprotective qualities may be a result of the bioactive compounds and carotenoids, such as beta carotene, found in olive oil. These potent antioxidants help to reduce inflammation that can lead to the development of cardiovascular decline. (9)
The abundance of monounsaturated fatty acids combined with tocopherols and polyphenols seem to be the perfect combination for keeping blood vessels and arteries happy and healthy. Monounsaturated fatty acids help to reduce triglyceride levels while anti-inflammatory antioxidants can reduce the burden on arteries by providing them with the nutrients they need to function optimally. (16) Drizzling this heart-healthy oil on to your favorite meals might just nourish your body as much as your taste buds.
Is there anything better than fresh, local berries in the summer months? From blackberries to strawberries, these little gems, loaded with polyphenols, nutrients, and fiber, help reduce the risk of cardiovascular complications. Regular berry consumption has been shown to reduce LDL oxidation and total plasma antioxidant capacity, both factors involved in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. (2)
It comes as no surprise that nutrient-dense spinach has made it onto the foods for a healthy heart list. The nitrates found in spinach, when converted to nitric oxide in the body, have been shown to improve endothelial function and lower blood pressure, both key factors in maintaining cardiovascular health. (3) Studies have shown that the consumption of nitrate-rich vegetables such as spinach reduces blood pressure while increasing plasma nitrate concentrations. (12) From salads to soups and everything in between, throwing a handful into your meals is easy. Now we have yet another reason to eat our greens.
Tomatoes have also been recognized as a cardiovascular supportive food. Research has demonstrated their ability to improve markers of cardiovascular disease, such as endothelial function, blood lipids, and blood pressure. (5) High concentrations of lycopene, an essential nutrient found in tomatoes, may reduce the risk of stroke up to 26%. (4) Interestingly enough, cooking tomatoes may actually make their protective compounds more bioavailable during digestion compared to their raw counterparts. (6) Italians may be onto something with their stewed tomato sauces that are undoubtedly also packed with heart-healthy garlic.
The bottom line
Every meal gives us the opportunity to nourish our bodies and support our cardiovascular systems. Adding in heart-healthy pantry staples like garlic, EVOO, and flaxseeds are simple ways to elevate everyday meals. Regularly consuming fresh seafood, berries, spinach, and tomatoes not only provide the building blocks for everyday health, but all contribute to optimal cardiovascular health. With so many heart-healthy foods to choose from, it’s easier than ever to fill our bodies with nutrients that prevent and protect our bodies against cardiovascular conditions – in other words, the power is on our plates.
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- American Heart Association. (2020). Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/fish-and-omega-3-fatty-acids
- Basu, A., Rhone, M., & Lyons, T. J. (2010). Berries: emerging impact on cardiovascular health. Nutrition Reviews, 68(3), 168–177. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00273.x
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