Your heart is a finely tuned machine. To keep it running in top form you need to give it heart healthy fuel. And that means you should choose a healthy diet. Some foods offer great heart benefits, but how do you choose?
More than 1 in 10 Americans has been diagnosed with heart disease. Picking the right healthy foods can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, including coronary artery disease which can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Here you will find 25 of the best foods to protect your heart and blood vessels. Learn the top nutrients that keep your heart beating at its best, along with menu suggestions to make these foods part of your daily meals.
Salmon is chock full of omega-3 fatty acids, which can decrease the risk of abnormal heartbeats (arrhythmias), lower triglyceride levels, slow the growth of plaque in your arteries, and slightly lower blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends two servings of omega-3 rich foods like salmon each week. A serving size is 3.5 ounces of cooked fish.
Salmon is a versatile food. Grill it with a rub or marinade, chop some and add it to a pasta dish with fat free marinara sauce, or add it to your salads for a protein punch.
Farmed Vs. Wild Salmon
Does the way your salmon was raised influence its omega-3 contents? Many grocery stores now carry both farm-raised and wild-caught salmon. It turns out that farm-raised salmon tends to have more omega-3 fat, but also more total fat. Even though farmed salmon has more saturated fat, it is still about half the amount found in the same portion of flank steak.
Ground flaxseed also has omega-3's, along with both soluble and insoluble fiber. It has one of the highest available sources of lignans, which have both plant estrogen and antioxidant qualities.
Ground flaxseed is easy to incorporate into your diet and can be mixed into just about anything you normally eat. Sprinkle it on your breakfast cereal, on top of low fat yogurt, mix into muffins, or combine into your smoothies.
What About Flaxseed Oil?
Flaxseed oil is loaded with omega-3s, but they are the less effective type known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). ALA needs special enzymes to be converted to omega-3, and these enzymes are found in your body in limited supply. This means that at most, you can expect about 15% of your flaxseed oil omega-3s to be converted into its most useful forms. So while you certainly do get some benefit, it may be less than your supplement label suggests.
Oatmeal is a tasty breakfast food, and another good source of those omega-3 fatty acids. And it is a fiber superstar, offering 4 grams in every one-cup serving. It also has nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and iron.
Oatmeal is a filling breakfast, and you can top it with fresh berries for an even more heart-healthy meal. Try fat free oatmeal cookies, oat bread, or mix whole rolled oats into a turkey burger meatloaf.
You know the schoolyard chant: “Beans, beans, good for your heart.” Turns out it's true! Beans have lots of soluble fiber, B-complex vitamins, niacin, folate, magnesium, calcium, and, you guessed it, omega-3 fatty acids.
Beans are so versatile. You can include them in soups, stews, or salads. Or make a meal out of them.
Try black beans on a whole-grain pita tostada with avocado, or combine them with corn kernels and onions to make stuffed bell peppers. Add canned kidney beans to a salad of cucumber, fresh corn, onions, and peppers, then toss with olive oil and apple cider vinegar. Or bring black beans and kidney beans together for a delicious, nutritious vegetarian chili.
Nuts have been shown to lower blood cholesterol. And for a heart-healthy nut, almonds make a great choice. They contain plant omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, fiber, and heart-favorable monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Almonds are so easy to eat – you can top your yogurt or salad with almond slivers, or snack on a healthy trail mix. You can also try them in cooking. Sprinkle them on a rice or quinoa dish, or spread them across some salmon for a nice crunch. Choose unsalted almonds for additional cardiac protection.
Just be sure your almonds are raw or dry roasted (rather than oil roasted), and keep portion sizes in mind. Though they are heart-healthy they are also high in fat, some of which is saturated fat. Like other nuts, almonds are dense with calories, and a little can go a long way. They are best eaten in moderation.
Walnuts provide a lot of the same health protection as almonds and other tree nuts. They contain plant omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, magnesium, folate, fiber, heart-favorable monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and phytosterols.
Also like almonds, walnuts give salads a hearty crunch. They taste great added to muffins and breakfast pancakes.
Though they are heart-healthy, they are also high in fat and calories and should be eaten in moderation. As with all nuts, keep walnut portion sizes in mind. One serving of walnuts should fit neatly in the palm of your hand, a portion that provides about 200 calories.
Red wine contains types of flavonoids called catechins, as well as the antioxidant resveratrol. Flavonoids can help maintain the health of your blood vessels, and may help prevent blood clots. Resveratrol has been shown in the lab to have heart-protecting benefits.
Have a glass of wine with dinner, or make a wine spritzer – mix wine with sparking water – to cut calories while still getting many of the benefits.
Keep in mind, though, that the American Heart Association does not recommend people start drinking simply to prevent heart disease. Drinking alcohol carries a risk of alcoholism, and can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, breast cancer, suicide, and auto accidents. Enjoy red wine in moderation.
Tuna contains omega-3 fatty acids. Although not as high in omega-3s as salmon, tuna does provide a moderately good amount. One serving of tuna also provides about half of your daily requirement of niacin, a nutrient that may improve survival odds for those who have had a heart attack.
Tuna salad (light on the mayo) is an easy lunch snack that will keep you full. Tuna makes a great salad topping, and can also be grilled for a tasty dinner.
Choosing Canned Tuna
Canned tuna is one of the most popular forms of seafood in America. But with all the choices, picking the right can is sometimes difficult. The two most common types are white tuna, made from albacore, and light tuna, made from smaller tuna types (usually skipjack). White has more omega-3s, but also higher mercury levels, a particular concern for pregnant women.
Some tuna comes in oil, and some comes in water. Tuna in water contains significantly more omega 3 fat. That's because plenty of that omega 3 fat is lost along with any oil you drain from the can.
Tofu is a great source of protein. It's vegetarian. And it's full of heart-healthy nutrients including niacin, folate, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Tofu is sometimes called "bean curd" because it is made from pressed soybean curd. It's easy to prepare and can be part of almost any meal.
Thinly slice firm tofu, marinate for several hours and grill or add to your favorite veggie stir-fry. Make a tofu, lettuce, and tomato sandwich on whole grain bread, use instead of meats in pasta dishes, and add in slices or cubes to salads for added protein.
Avoid Processed Tofu Products
Although tofu has been shown in many studies to have heart-protective qualities, it depends on how you eat it. As healthy as it can be, tofu is not always in good company. It is included in many ultraprocessed foods, a type of food that has been associated with obesity and cardiovascular health problems. Its use in high-calorie processed foods led the FDA to revoke some of the heart health claims of tofu products in 2017.
Brown rice is not only tasty, it's part of a heart healthy diet too. Brown rice provides B-complex vitamins, magnesium, and fiber.
You can add brown rice to just about any dish and you can't go wrong. Microwaveable brown rice with a few chopped veggies makes an easy and quick lunch. Mix it with some black beans or tofu, make a stir-fry, add to soups, or try it cold mixed into an avocado salad.
Soy milk contains isoflavones (a flavonoid), and brings lots of nutrition into your diet. Nutrients include B-complex vitamins, folate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phytoestrogens. The protein found in soy milk, versus the protein found in animal milks, can help lower blood cholesterol levels and may provide other cardiovascular benefits.
Use soy milk in your whole grain breakfast cereal or blend in a smoothie, or replace the dairy milk in any recipe with soy milk.
Berries are good for your heart, along with the rest of your body. Blueberries are packed with nutrients that are part of a healthy diet, including beta-carotene and lutein (carotenoids), anthocyanin (a flavonoid), ellagic acid (a polyphenol), vitamin C, folate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber.
Berries are easy to eat as a healthy snack by themselves, or on top of your cereal or pancakes, or blend into a smoothie, top off your low-fat yogurt, or have some on a salad.
Carrots are probably best known as a great source of carotenes. They have lots of the well-known nutrient beta-carotene, but carrots are also a good source of both alpha and gamma carotenes (carotenoids). Studies have associated higher levels of beta carotene with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
Baby carrots make a great snack. Chopped up they add crunch to salads, and you can even sneak shredded carrots into many recipes including tomato sauce, muffins, and pasta.
Spinach packs a heart-healthy punch with beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, potassium, folate, calcium, and fiber.
Spinach makes a great base for salads and can be used on sandwiches in lieu of lettuce. You can also sneak some into a fruit smoothie, add it to your pizza, or mix into an egg white omelet. Or add it to your pasta dish for a health bonus.
Fresh Spinach or Frozen?
It depends on how long it's been sitting. Frozen spinach contains less folate than freshly harvested spinach, and some studies say folate might lower your risk of heart disease. However, there's a catch—fresh spinach's folate degrades over time. So, if your fresh spinach has been driven long distances before it reaches your table, or if you leave it in the fridge for a week, frozen spinach may actually be more nutritious.
Broccoli is a powerhouse vegetable with beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, potassium, folate, calcium, and fiber.
Broccoli tastes great added to soups, mixed in with veggie dips, added to salads, or mixed with a brown rice dish. Adding more broccoli to your diet is a sure way to improve the health of your heart.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamins. You will find vitamin A and C inside them, and sweet potatoes are a rare low-fat source of vitamin E. They also have potassium, folate, calcium, and fiber—and you get even more fiber when you eat their skins.
You can prepare a sweet potato almost any way you want and it will be tasty! Bake it whole and top with veggies. Cut it into slices and bake until crisp for healthy fries. Use a food processor and puree sweet potato for a creamy-tasting soup. They also make a great side dish mashed up.
Sweet potatoes are not the same as yams. Yams are healthy too, but sweet potatoes pack more nutrients and fiber.
Red bell peppers are tangy, crunchy, and full of heart-healthy nutrients like beta-carotene and lutein (carotenoids), B-complex vitamins, folate, potassium, and fiber.
Peppers are delicious in salads and wraps, or cut into slices to snack on raw. Grill or roast them for a hearty side dish, or add to sauces or main dishes for extra flavor.
When it comes to heart-protective nutrients in bell peppers, color counts. Red peppers have significant stores of beta-carotene, for instance. While still healthy in many other ways, yellow bells have nearly no beta-carotene at all.
Asparagus is a healthy veggie that contains beta-carotene and lutein (both carotenoids), B-complex vitamins, folate, and fiber.
Asparagus makes an excellent heart-healthy side dish. Grill or steam lightly and sprinkle with some balsamic vinaigrette. Add to salads, stews, or casseroles for added health benefit.
Oranges are a perfect totable snack. They're juicy and filled with nutrients such as the antioxidant beta-cryptoxanthin, carotenoids like beta- and alpha-carotene and lutein, as well as flavones (flavonoids), vitamin C, potassium, folate, and fiber.
The whole fruit is best, and tasty to eat on its own. You can also add orange slices to salads, yogurt, or even chicken dishes. Orange juice can also offer some of the same benefits, but pound for pound you are best off eating the fruit whole.
Tomatoes are a versatile heart-healthy food with beta- and alpha-carotene, lycopene, lutein (carotenoids), vitamin C, potassium, folate, and fiber. Lycopene in particular has been studied a possible protection from cardiovascular disease, though studies remain inconclusive.
Raw, tomatoes can be added to sandwiches or salads. Cooked, they make great sauces, and are perfect additions to pasta dishes.
Acorn squash is another heart-healthy food with beta-carotene and lutein (carotenoids), B-complex and C vitamins, folate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber.
Baked acorn squash is a great winter food. To make this, simply cut the squash in half, scrape out the seeds, and fill with brown rice and veggies before roasting.
Cantaloupe is a summertime favorite that also contains heart-healthy nutrients such as alpha- and beta-carotene and lutein (carotenoids), B-complex and C vitamins, folate, potassium, and fiber.
You can enjoy cantaloupe any time of day – just cut and eat! Also try some blended into a smoothie, or mix with other fruits for a fresh fruit salad.
Papaya contains the carotenoids beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, and lutein. It adds vitamins A and C to your diet, along with folate, calcium, and potassium.
Papaya goes great with heart-healthy salmon. Try it in a smoothie, fruit salad, frozen into a popsicle, added to salsa, or even grilled.
Good news! Chocolate contains heart-healthy resveratrol and cocoa phenols (flavonoids), which can lower blood pressure.
Stick to dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content to reap the benefits, and remember moderation is key because chocolate is high in calories, fat, and sugar. Only one serving is needed.
Like red wine, tea contains catechins and flavonols, which can help maintain the health of your blood vessels, and may keep blood clots from forming. Green tea in particular has been touted for its antioxidant properties.
Tea may reduce your risk for heart problems, according to one long-term study of more than 6,000 adults. The study found that adults who drank 1-3 cups of tea every day had better coronary calcium scores. Coronary calcium can be a precursor for heart attack, stroke, and other heart problems.
Enjoy tea hot or cold. Try adding some lemon. To get more antioxidants from the tea, brew with hotter water, and steep for at least three to five minutes. Avoid sugar or cream as these add unnecessary calories and fat.
We've gone over many foods that make up a heart-healthy diet. But we've also introduced a lot of micronutrients. Do you know the difference between a phytoestrogen and a phytosterol? How does a B-complex vitamin compare with vitamin C? Use this chart as your guide to some of the heart-healthy nutrients listed in this slideshow.
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- American Heart Association News Archive: "Tea drinking linked to better heart health."
- American Institute for Cancer Research: "How much nutrition do I lose by using frozen spinach instead of fresh?"
- Biomedicines: "Resveratrol: A double-edged sword in health benefits."
- British Heart Foundation: "Can tomatoes prevent heart attacks?"
- Circulation: "Soy protein, isoflavones, and cardiovascular health."
- Circulation Research: "Serum beta carotene and overall and cause-specific mortality."
- Dairy Council of California: "Health benefits of oatmeal."
- Household USDA Food Fact Sheet: "Beans, black."
- Journal of the American Heart Association: "The dilemma with the soy protein health claim."
- NIH: "Know the differences: Cardiovascular disease, heart disease, coronary heart disease."
- NIH Fact Sheet for Health Professionals: "Niacin."
- Network for a Healthy California: "Harvest of the month: Asparagus," "Harvest of the month: Oranges."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Finding omega-3 fats in fish: Farmed versus wild," "Why not flaxseed oil?"
- The Hawaii Papaya Industry Association: "Nutrition facts."
- Produce for Better Health Foundation: "What is the nutritional value of half an acorn squash if you eat the skin too?"
- Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter: "Which color of bell pepper has most nutrients?"
- USDA Food Composition Database: "Broccoli, raw," "Rice, brown, long-grain."
- USDA SNAP-Ed Connection: "Blueberries," "Cantaloupe."
- UC Berkeley Wellness: "Carrots: A beta carotene wonder," "What you should know about tuna."
- UC Davis Nutrition Department: "The benefits of consuming almonds," "Walnuts lower cholesterol and triglycerides in free-living adults."
- University of Illinois Extension: "Sweet potato factsheet."