It seems like there’s a new superfood every week. Acai, matcha, soylent, kale, goji berries—it’s hard to keep track. But what you eat matters, especially to your heart. Both the American Heart Association (AHA) and American Academy of Cardiology (ACC) stress that “lifestyle modification” is the foundation of treating and preventing heart disease (the #1 cause of death in the US). And those modifications hinge on a heart healthy diet. Maybe even more so than exercise.
If you can only change one bad habit (we get it, change is hard), change what you eat. You’ll get better results from adding a few heart healthy foods to your diet than almost any other “life hack.” Why? Because you eat three meals a day, every day.
Here are six heart healthy foods that you’ll actually eat (and why they’re so good for you).
Heart Healthy Foods that Actually Taste Good
The wildly popular Mediterranean Diet has been touted as the ultimate heart healthy diet, and for good reason. A traditional Mediterranean diet has been linked to reduced risk of heart disease and lower levels of (LDL) cholesterol (aka the “bad” cholesterol), and fewer incidences of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. And it all starts with olive oil.
Olive oil, particularly extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO)—shoutout to Rachel Ray—is associated with a decrease in both cardiovascular disease and overall mortality. In fact, every 10g of EVOO (⅔ of a tablespoon for all you American cooks) is associated with a 39% decrease in the risk for cardiovascular disease.
However, the main reason olive oil makes the list of “heart healthy foods” is because you of its versatility. You can use olive oil for pretty much everything. Cook with it, fry food in it, or create a tasty, light pasta sauce—just add balsamic vinegar. Olive oil makes a healthy (delicious) salad dressing, and is a great base for dips and marinades. The key is using olive oil as a replacement for other oils, not in addition to them.
Every 10g (⅔ of a tablespoon) of olive oil decreases your risk for cardiovascular disease by 39%
Insert obvious joke here, but nuts are a great healthy snack substitute for chips, pretzels, cookies, and other greasy, salty foods. Nuts are linked with a decrease for the risk of both cardiovascular disease and mortality. In fact, one serving of nuts per day (28g or 1oz) is associated with a 21% decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and a 22% reduction in total mortality. Pistachio, peanuts, cashews, pine nuts—they’re all great for you—and they’re absolutely delicious.
Like olive oil, the health benefits happen when you replace junk foods with this heart-healthy alternative. Just make sure to buy raw or unprocessed nuts. It doesn’t help anything to replace unhealthy snacks with over processed, sweetened flavored nuts. If your nuts have more sugar or salt per serving than a big mac, you’re not really getting any of the inherent health benefits.
Eating fish has been linked to lower risk of heart disease and mortality for years. In fact, the dose-response relationship (the more you eat, the greater the benefits) is particularly strong, especially when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure and triglycerides and decreasing blood clotting, which reduces your risk of heart attacks and strokes. Because of this, doctors recommend eating at least 2 servings of fatty fish—like salmon—per week. Personally, based on the current disease research, I recommend eating up to 5 servings of fatty fish per week. It may be even better for your health than two.
If you like fish, you’re in luck. Every serving is not only delicious but packed with omega-3 fatty acids that lower your risk for heart disease.
People across the globe have touted the health benefits of tea—specifically green tea—for centuries. In fact, tea is one of the world’s oldest “superfoods.” But there’s more to tea than just rumors. There may be some real heart health benefits to a good cup of green tea.
One exhaustive 13-year Japanese study of over 80,000 people found a “nearly 20 percent reduction in the risk of heart attack and a 35 percent reduced risk of stroke among those who drank one to three cups of green tea a day.”
Just remember, like all the heart healthy foods on this list, added sugar or sweetened tea reduces most of the health benefits of tea. Sweetened beverages—even tea—are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, not a decrease.
The controversy rages about the health benefits of coffee (particularly the role of caffeine), but the data is mounting in support of the health benefits of coffee.
Coffee consumption is associated with a 15% lower risk of cardiovascular disease as well as a lower risks of cancer, diabetes, liver disease and a host of other conditions. Coffee can be part of a healthy diet, but, as with tea, you have to avoid sweetened and flavored coffees. A hazelnut frappuccino with extra whip isn’t going to do your heart any favors.
If you don’t like it black, a little bit of cream and a tiny amount of sugar or honey are still ok for a heart healthy hot beverage.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Chocolate is good for you. While it’s exciting to think about the health benefits of a supersize Hershey’s, the reality is more complicated. The real health benefits don’t come from chocolate—at least not the sweet milk chocolate you’re probably thinking of—but rather from cocoa, and more specifically from a micronutrient cocoa contains called “flavanols.”
Flavanols may work to promote cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure, improving blood vessel health, decreasing clots that cause heart attacks and strokes, and preventing oxidation of LDL cholesterol. If that sounds like a lot of health benefits from a single food, it is. And that’s part of the controversy surrounding chocolate as a “health food.” However, moderate amounts of dark chocolate with flavanol are a healthy addition to your diet.
1-1.5 oz of dark chocolate everyday is good for your heart
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, I recommend replacing other candy in your diet with dark chocolate, preferably the kind with 75% cocoa or higher. Certain chocolate production procedures can actually destroy flavanols (and their health benefits), so there’s no hard fast guarantee chocolate will have any health benefits, but dark chocolate is much more likely than milk chocolate to contain health-promoting flavanols.
Heart Healthy Foods Should Still Taste Good
What you eat on a daily basis is one of the most important determinants of your overall heart health. However, your diet doesn’t need to be bland or boring to be good for you. Make these delicious foods a regular part of your eating plan and reap the benefits. You’ll enjoy your food and your life more and improve your health at the same time.
Geek Out: More Heart Healthy Diet References
Not enough info for you? No problem. Nerd out on heart healthy foods with research from the most trusted sources on the interwebs. If you have any questions or you think we missed something important, leave a comment or book a consultation with one of these trained professionals and we’ll get you on the way to a healthier manhood.
- 2013 AHA/ACC Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk (AHA/ACC)
- Dietary and Policy Priorities for Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Obesity (AHA)
- Olive oil intake and risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality
- Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, all-cause and cause-specific mortality
- Accumulated Evidence on Fish Consumption and Coronary Heart Disease Mortality
- Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease
- Tea consumption and cardiovascular disease risk
- Coffee consumption and health
- Chocolate Consumption is Inversely Associated with Prevalent Coronary Heart Disease
- Cocoa Intake, Blood Pressure, and Cardiovascular Mortality
- What are Flavanoids?
- Cocoa, chocolate and cardiovascular disease