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
- Bondonno, C. P., Yang, X., Croft, K. D., Considine, M. J., Ward, N. C., Rich, L., Puddey, I. B., Swinny, E., Mubarak, A., & Hodgson, J. M. (2012). Flavonoid-rich apples and nitrate-rich spinach augment nitric oxide status and improve endothelial function in healthy men and women: a randomized controlled trial. Free Radical Biology and Medicine, 52(1), 95–102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2011.09.028
- Cheng, Ho M., Koutsidis, G., Lodge, J. K., Ashor, A. W., Siervo, M., & Lara, J. (2017). Lycopene and tomato and risk of cardiovascular diseases: A systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiological evidence. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 59(1), 141–158. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2017.1362630
- Cheng, Ho Ming, Koutsidis, G., Lodge, J. K., Ashor, A., Siervo, M., & Lara, J. (2017). Tomato and lycopene supplementation and cardiovascular risk factors: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Atherosclerosis, 257, 100–108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2017.01.009
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- DiNicolantonio, J. J., Lucan, S. C., & O’Keefe, J. H. (2016). The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 58(5), 464–472. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2015.11.006
- Erdmann, K., Cheung, B. W. Y., & Schröder, H. (2008). The possible roles of food-derived bioactive peptides in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 19(10), 643–654. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnutbio.2007.11.010
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- Heart Disease Facts | cdc.gov. (2019, December 2). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
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- Jonvik, K. L., Nyakayiru, J., Pinckaers, P. J., Senden, J. M., van Loon, L. J., & Verdijk, L. B. (2016). Nitrate-Rich Vegetables Increase Plasma Nitrate and Nitrite Concentrations and Lower Blood Pressure in Healthy Adults. The Journal of Nutrition, 146(5), 986–993. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.116.229807
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Seafood and oil are not heart healthy. The so-called “Mediterranean Diet” is heart healthy in spite of them not because of them. The Greek diet of today is high in animal products and fat and the Greeks are some of the most obese people on the planet. Eat whole plants, minimize processed fats (yes EVOO is highly processed) and animal products (you are not a lion).
I agree with Tia. Oils and seafoods are not healthy
I don’t believe vegans and vegetarians do as well as high fat diets (including animal fats from grass fed, naturally fed animals) in the long run! For example, there have been studies that dementia and cancer can be more present in vegans.
I keep running across messages saying tomatoes can cause arthritis. To your knowledge is there any validity to this?
Dear Tia, I read your comment with big surprise!!
Where did you get your information from? I have lived for many years in Greece and Italy. People are eating food they cook everyday from scratch, purchased locally and always organic. Harmful chemicals are banned in EU. The fish and the extra virgin olive oil with locally produced legumes are part of the main diet. The meat is always organic and low in fat because the animals are grass fed in the traditional way. Of course, it is your choice to be vegetarian and the variety in this area is amazingly large..
Icaria, a Greek Island is a blue zone. People live longer and better. They follow the mediterranean diet.
If you had looked in the global obesity levels according to the WHO, you would find US ranks 12, Turkey ranks 17 and Greece ranks 54.!! . These are facts and not baseless claims.
I believe olive oil is extremely healthy!
Don’t be concerned about “processing” involved in olive oil rendering, people can consume olives – and they’re absolutely delicious!
Not a lion yes. Cats are obligate carnivores. They must eat meat. However, we are omnivores. Properly prepared meat is not bad for humans. If you have an ethical problem with that, then that is your business. There is no research linking meat to poor health outcomes. It is all correlational. Fish is a very high-quality nutrient and is not responsible for obesity. Refined carbohydrates and fat are, though.
Hi Kris, thank you for reaching out! We are unable to offer medical advice and recommend reaching out to your healthcare practitioner about your question. However, you might be interested in reading more about The autoimmune protocol diet planto provide more insight. Wishing you a great day ahead!
Thanks for clarifying. I swear Americans always look for an excuse not to eat healthy and take care of themselves. They can’t help it.