It’s February, and you’re probably thinking about your heart, for romantic or health reasons, or both! It may seem as if heart health is all about dietary deprivation, but it’s not. While no single food or nutrient is a magic bullet, adding these delicious superfoods to your diet will help to keep your ticker in tip-top shape.
Pump Up the Plants
Eating more fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods is linked to a lower risk for heart disease. Experts note that the many different nutrients in plant foods, such as antioxidant vitamins and minerals that protect cells, and fiber, work together for heart health. Most adults require at least five cups of fruits and vegetables each day. It’s easy to get what you need when you include produce in snacks, and at every meal. For example, choose an Eat Smart Stir Fry Kit and add a source of plant protein, such as tofu or beans, for a healthy, convenient meal. I keep bags of vegetables, including snap peas and cubed butternut squash, on hand to help get produce on the table in minutes. To find Eat Smart superfood products, check out the store locator.
Make it Whole Grain
The fiber in whole grains helps lower blood cholesterol levels and may reduce your chances of clogged arteries and heart attack. Whole grains, which have more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than refined grains, such as white bread, white rice, and pretzels, help you feel fuller for longer and foster a healthy weight, which also boosts heart health. You need at least three servings of whole grains daily. Pick whole grain cereal, such as oatmeal or cold cereal, for breakfast or add ¼ cup raw quick oats to your breakfast smoothie; choose whole wheat bread for sandwiches or to go with a salad at lunch; munch on low-fat microwave popcorn (yes, popcorn is a whole grain!) for snacks or use as a salad topper; and include whole grains at dinner. Try quinoa, farro and wild rice for a change of pace.
Go Nuts for Heart Health
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found a link between eating just one ounce of nuts daily (a small handful) and lower death rates from heart disease. One ounce of most nuts serves up about 160 calories and an array of heart-healthy nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Sprinkle on salads, cold and warm cereal, soups and stews, or eat them plain.
Don’t Forgo Fat
The super low-fat approach to heart health may not be the best one. That’s because including unsaturated fats helps to reduce blood cholesterol concentrations. That doesn’t mean you can eat as much fat as you like, but it does mean that you should include good-for-you foods, such as avocado, olive and canola oils, and fatty fish, into your balanced eating plan. Experts suggest eating at least two fish meals (8 ounces total) weekly. Fish harbors omega-3 fats, a type of unsaturated fat that contributes to heart health. Bake, roast, or grill fish for the greatest benefits, or simply add canned or pouch salmon or tuna to salads.
Get Crazy About Cocoa Powder
Unsweetened cocoa powder, the major ingredient in chocolate, boasts powerful antioxidants that can lower blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and reduce inflammation in blood vessels, allowing them to fully open up to maximize blood flow to the heart. Look for alkaline-free unsweetened cocoa powder; it has the most antioxidants. Add this nearly calorie-free heart-healthy food to cooked oatmeal, Greek yogurt, smoothies, and pancake batter, and enjoy! Cocoa powder contains a “feel-good” compound that triggers feelings of pleasure, which is surely good for your heart!
Elizabeth (Liz) Ward, MS, RD, is a freelance writer and nutrition consultant. She is the author of several books including her latest, My Plate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better. As a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) for nearly 10 years, Ward was featured in nearly 1,000 print and broadcast interviews, including CNN, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe. She has also been a guest on NBC’s Today Show, the Dr. Oz Show, and appeared regularly live on the Morning News on Fox 25 in Boston for six years. Ward has been an invited speaker at more than 100 professional meetings. Ward lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.