5 Harmful Habits Support Heart Disease:
- being overweight
- lack of physical activity
- drinking too much alcohol, and
- making unhealthy food choices
While other factors, too, can burden our heart, such as stress, attitude, genetics, environment and relationships, none are as influential and damaging as the 5 Harmful Habits that Invite Heart Disease.
Although rarely anyone has died of a broke heart*, plenty of people have died of too many burgers, cigarettes, and beer.
(* it’s called takotsubo cardiomyopathy and has been clinically diagnosed.)
My Favorite Foods For a Healthy Heart
Our heart and cardiovascular health is influenced by cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes.
Choosing food that lowers these parameters or keeps them at healthy level is a win-win to support heart health and ward off heart disease.
So, here are my favorite food items that support my heart (of course in combination with healthy exercise, a balanced lifestyle, positive mind-set,….). But I don’t just list my favorite foods, I also share with you what makes them so healthy. And don’t worry, it’s simple food you can find in almost any grocery store.
My Favorite Heart Healthy Treat:
Okay, I’m more a fan of cacao powder, raw cacao and cacao beans but I will not turn down a piece of high quality dark chocolate. As it’s exactly that chocolate (70% + cacao) that is rich in flavanols and antioxidants.
Benefits of flavanols, also known as polyphenols (1):
- relaxes arteries –> increases blood flow –> lowers blood pressure
- prevents blood clots
- reduces inflammation
Benefits of antioxidants:
- prevent “bad” (LDL) cholesterol from sticking to the walls of our arteries
But you won’t find these benefits in white or milk chocolate.
You need to choose the good kind of chocolate. The chocolate where the first ingredient is NOT sugar! And the chocolate that doesn’t have palm oils added. Hence, read the ingredients list.
Good quality heart healthy chocolate contains cacao, sugar, cacao butter, and at times perhaps vanilla
(in that order of ingredients).
(Sugar in excess raises our risk of heart disease.)
My Favorite Heart Healthy Grains & Pulses
I still remember when living in the US, the box of Quaker Oats displayed a big “heart healthy” sign on the front. Oats, everyone has since learned are great for our heart.
Oats contain fiber but not just any type of fiber.
They have a special type called beta-glucan.
By the way, barley (a forgotten „superfood“), too, contains beta-glucan.
How much beta- glucan should we consume (on average per day) for our heart to benefit?
- 135 g or 1 1/2 cups of oats or
- 160 g or 1 cup of cooked barley (by the way, I LOVE barley too. It’s soo versatile)
But please use the plain oatmeal. And steel cut oats are better than the smaller, quick cooking kind.
Give these oatmeal-nut butter balls a try. They are awesome for breakfast or snack; even your kids will love them.
Everyone knows I love chickpeas, as snack, salad, dry roasted or hummus. I eat them daily.
They, along with other beans and lentils are a fabulous source of soluble fiber – the kind, yes, can lower bad LDL cholesterol.
Not to mention they offer plant-based protein and are better for our environment than meat or poultry. Plus, they are lower in saturated fat compared to red meat which is often sighted as added reason for their heart healthiness (4).
Given that canned beans are soo much more time-convenient, I tend to buy them BUT given we in Europe rarely have low-salt options I tend to rinse the chickpeas (or pulses) and let them sit for a while in clean water (I change the water frequently to remove as much of the salt as possible).
One study (5) concluded
people who consume legumes at least 4 times per week are at 22% lower risk of heart disease compared with those who consume them less than once a week.
My Favorite Heart Healthy Nuts & Seeds
Nibbling on 7-12 (or 5 ounces of) nuts each week may cut our risk of heart disease.
Walnuts, brazil nuts, almonds, macademia nuts, hazel nuts….I don’t stick with one kind of nuts. I tend to vary them.
They all contain lots of healthy, mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Plus, they are loaded in fiber as well as vitamins, such as vitamin E and folate (both support heart health). More, especially walnuts offer a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids, although they are different than the omega 3s you find in salmon, for example. (Although pecans and pin nuts are a better omega 3 source as they are lower in omega 6. But more to that another time.)
Frequent snacking on healthy nuts raises good HDL cholesterol while reducing bad LDL cholesterol and helps reduce plaque buildup within our arteries (6).
But please choose plain nuts, not the kind with added salt, sugar, or fats.
And please don’t fear weight gain: studies have shown people who consume nuts frequently are learner than people who don’t.
„Higher nut intake is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality, and mortality from respiratory disease, diabetes, and infections.“ (7)
Chia or Flax Seeds
Chia water my daily drink to help balance my hormones.
Did you know just a small spoon of (soaked) seeds daily helps to reduce bad LDL cholesterol?
Why, because similar to nuts, these seeds are loaded in Omega 3 fatty acids plus they contain high amounts of fiber. They lower blood cholesterol and may even support fat excretion (8).
Please be sure to soak them. They hold lots of water. If you just sprinkle them over your salad or cereal they could actually lead to constipation. Hence, let them soak in a bit of warm water first, creating a gel-like consistency before adding to your baked goods, cereal, yogurt,….alternatively, give this 3 minute chia breakfast a try.
Or, if you haven’t tried: grind them. I like grinding my flax seeds. Then I add a few spices and some warm (oat) milk, let it sit and enjoy it as snack. Alternatively, in case you don’t like these seeds, try hemp or pumpkin seeds. They offer the similar heart health benefits.
Unsalted nut butter
Duh, if I like nuts I certainly will consume nut butter. And if you have seen my post on healthy office snacks you know I LOVE nut butter, especially cashew.
Plain with a spoon, topped on a banana or a few apple slices or over whole grain rice cakes. These make for a great snack, even pre-workout.
Nut butter, the plain kind makes for a heart-healthy snack.
Read the ingredients as many (!) nut butters have added ingredients, such as sugar, palm or vegetable oils, salt,……
(If you speak German, don’t miss this article comparing variety of peanut butter brands. You might be surprised how few nuts made it into your jar.)
What makes nut butter so healthy?
- healthy monounsaturated fat
- plant-based protein
- vitamin E
My Favorite Heart Healthy Drink
Although, I have to admit, I’m cheating on this one. I don’t like the flavor of green tea. Not to mention, it makes me nauseous if I drink it on an half-empty stomach. Hence, I use green tea powder in my green smoothie.
- lowers high blood pressure
- decreases the absorption of triglycerides and cholesterol –> increases excretion of fat
- provides us with antioxidants, such as catechins, and flavonoids –> all are said to promote heart health, reduce blood clots, and prevent the appearance of atherosclerotic plaque (9,10)
- on a side note: green tea is also powerful in reducing risk of cancer (10)
More, a meta-analysis in 2009 (11) concluded,
people who drank 3+ cups of green tea daily had a 21% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke compared with people who „seldom“ drank green tea.
Okay, to be fair, coffee should be on the list as well but I stopped drinking coffee (besides, it isn’t nearly as heart healthy as tea)….and given it’s my list of my favorite heart healthy foods, I won’t list coffee.
My Favorite Heart Healthy Veggies:
You knew this would be on the list!
This green vegetable, just like spinach (yum!) and kale is:
- high in fiber
- low in cholesterol (after all it’s a vegetable)
- rich in vitamins and minerals and
- rich in antioxidants, such as carotenoids
- but more importantly, broccoli contains sulforaphane which not only reduces inflammation of vascular cells or the risk for atherosclerosis but also oxidative stress (12,13)
- sulforaphane, too, plays a protective role against cancer (14)
Tired of steamed broccoli? Then give this crunchy, refreshing broccoli salad a try. It might just become your favorite! The best part, broccoli is in season from June to October. Hence, load up during this time on this local treasure.
Yup, they too.
I love them especially in this brussels sprouts salad. A bit messy to make but given the salad also contains pomegranates and nut butter it’s a win-win for my heart and tummy!
And given that brussels sprouts are in season during winter months, I can load up on them during periods when I can’t find locally grown broccoli.
- loaded in glucosinolates, important phytonutrients known for their role in cancer protection
- one of the glucosinolates is powerful sulforaphane
- reduce inflammation
- rich in antioxidants
- improve health of our blood vessels
- provide cholesterol-lowering effect
- plus, of course they are rich in vitamins, such as K,C, and folate and fiber
Sulforaphane found in Brussels sprouts supports anti-inflammatory activity in our cardiovascular system & may help prevent and even possibly reverse blood vessel damage.
What makes cauliflower so heart healthy?
- rich in fiber
- loaded in antioxidants
- similar to garlic, cauliflower contains allicin, which helps reduce cholesterol and lower risk of heart attacks (17)
- just like broccoli and brussels sprouts, cauliflower, too, contains sulforaphane (13)
Not sure how to increase your intake of cauliflower?
- try cauliflower rice as alternative to rice
- use cauliflower when cooking or baking to create healthier recipe. Need ideas? Check some out here.
And last but certainly not least my favorite heart healthy vegetable:
Yep, I LOVE them. Raw, cooked, steamed, oven-baked, as soup……or in sweet dishes. I don’t need a reason to eat them. And I have to admit, I am thrilled that sweet potatoes are finally widely available in Austria. This wasn’t the case 5 years ago!
What makes sweet potatoes so heart-healthy (18)?
- a great source of vitamins, such as C and beta-carotene which helps protect against stroke (although perhaps NOT in men who smoke, 19) and the pathway how it does so might be unclear (20)
- wonderful source of minerals, such as potassium, calcium & iron which both reduce high blood pressure–> lower incidence of stroke and heart diseases (21)
- high concentration of anthocyanin
- loaded in fiber, which reduces bad LDL cholesterol –> lowers risk for heart disease
Did you know that the traditional diet in Okinawa is anchored by root vegetables (principally sweet potatoes), green and yellow vegetables, soybean-based foods, and medicinal plants?
Btw, there’s no reason to shun other potatoes because they’re white and look like a „bad“ starch. As long as they’re not deep fried, potatoes can (in moderation and as part of a healthy dish, not swimming in heavy sour creme or bacon) be good for our heart. They’re rich in potassium, which can help lower blood pressure.
Now, if they are sweet as well, then that’s a win win for me…
My Favorite Heart Healthy Fruit:
But please purchase organic apples and please do yourself a favor and eat the skin. If you peel the skin you miss out on the most nutritious part of the apple:
- polyphenols –> they shield cholesterol from free-radical assaults
What else makes apples so heart healthy?
- pectin –> blocks absorption of cholesterol
- rich in fiber –> reduces cholesterol
- rich in vitamins and minerals
And given apples are around almost all season, even in winter, they are a local treat to be cherished.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away but also decreases bad LDL cholesterol by 40%.
Unlike other citrus fruits, such as oranges or mandarins, I love grapefruits. The real fruit, not the juice and preferably the pink kind.
What makes grape fruits (and other citrus fruits) so heart healthy?
- contain a lot of vitamin C –> can protect against stroke and help reduce cholesterol
- high in flavonoids –> reduces risk of blood clots
But, be aware: if you’re on heart medication, a cholesterol-lowering statin drug or Viagra you should stay away from citrus fruit. These medications combined with citrus fruit (when taken together) have been shown to be toxic.
A study in 2012 concluded,
women who consume high amounts of citrus fruit have a 19% lower risk of ischemic stroke compared with women who rarely eat citrus fruit
Yummy! Although, like many heart-healthy items not a locally grown food I try to buy them when in season (in season = in Turkey).
Plain, over salad or in my Brussels sprout salad, in oatmeal or yogurt or mixed as heart healthy snack with pistachios. Pomegranates, although messy to open, rock.
What makes pomegranates so heart-healthy?
- rich in antioxidants, such as polyphenols and anthocyanins which both may improve blood flow to the heart by reducing plaque buildup in the arteries
Yes, I know. They aren’t grown locally and getting them here wreaks havoc on our environment. Hence, I don’t eat them weekly but once in a while (once a month or two) I treat myself to them. Why?
- loaded with monounsaturated fats, also known as “good fats” that can help lower bad LDL cholesterol and blood clots
- high in antioxidants
- high in potassium –> reduced blood pressure
- anti-inflammatory effect –> supports our artery walls
Need ideas to eat more avocados?
- spread on bread or rice cakes
- top over your sir-fry veggies or salad
- make this awesome protein rich alternative to guacamole
- add to chili
And last but not least
My Favorite Heart Healthy Protein
Okay, caveat, I don’t eat salmon as much as I’d like or should but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it. It’s just difficult to find high quality (wild, not farm-raised) salmon in Vienna (at affordable price) plus I’m still torn on the environmental impact of it.
But, I’ll include it in my list nonetheless because it is a heart healthy food I truly enjoy when I do treat myself to it.
What makes salmon a heart-healthy food?
- it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids which improves our metabolic marker for heart disease
- rich in selenium –> boosts cardiovascular health
Benefits of omega-3 fatty acids:
- anti-clotting effect –> keep our blood flowing
- help reduce triglycerides –> high levels of triglycerides, a type of fat, can lead to heart disease
I find it truly terrible that many of the truly heart healthy food items can’t be sourced locally. I try to consume local and in season as much as possible and while I can purchase and consume heart-healthy veggies and apples, finding heart healthy salmon, green tea, citrus and avocado, and dark chocolate (after all cacao beans don’t grow in Vienna, Austria) is impossible. Here, I choose a balance, purchase more of what’s local, and less of what’s not…with occasional treats in mind which I’m sure to cherish fully.
3 dietary related factors influence the health of our heart:
- blood pressure
Although a substantial body of evidence has concluded, as blood pressure rises, so does the risk of cardiovascular diseases, particularly coronary heart disease and stroke. These together are the leading causes of mortality in the western world.
For a healthy heart, to increase heart health and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease make the food items listed above part of your weekly diet.
Get into the habit of buying them, find ways to incorporate them into your snacks and meals and before you know it you have made heart-healthy food choices.
You might not see it but your heart will be smiling.
Thank you for reading! Please feel free to share and like so others too keep their heart healthy.
Other articles that might be of interest to you:
(1) Fisher NDL, Hughes M, Gerhard-Herman M, et al. (2003). Flavanol-rich cocoa induces nitric-oxide-dependent vasodilation in healthy humans. J Hypertension, 21(12): 2281-2286.
(2) Othman RA, Moghadasian MH, Jones PJ. (2011). Cholesterol-lowering effects of oat β-glucan. Nutr Rev, 69(6):299-309. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00401.x.
(3) Ho HV, Sievenpiper JL, Zurbau A, et al. (2016). The effect of oat β-glucan on LDL-cholesterol, non-HDL-cholesterol and apoB for CVD risk reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised-controlled trials. Br J Nutr, 116(8):1369-1382. doi.org/10.1017/S000711451600341X
(4) Marventano S, Izquierdo Pulido M, Sánchez-González C, et al. (2017). Legume consumption and CVD risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Public Health Nutr, 20(2):245-254. doi: 10.1017/S1368980016002299.
(5) Bazzano LA, He J, Ogden LG, et al. (2001). Legume consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in US men and women: NHANES I Epidemiologic Follow-up Study. Arch Intern Med, 161(21):2573-8. doi:10.1001/archinte.161.21.2573
(6) O’Neil CE, Keast DR, Nicklas TA, et al. (2011). Nut consumption is associated with decreased health risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome in U.S. adults: NHANES 1999-2004. J Am Coll Nutr, 30(6):502-10.
(7) Aune D, Keum N, Giovannucci E, et al. (2016). Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, all-cause and cause-specific mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMC Medicine, 14:207. doi.org/10.1186/s12916-016-0730-3
(8) Kristensen M, Jensen MG, Aarestrup J, et al. (2012). Flaxseed dietary fibers lower cholesterol and increase fecal fat excretion, but magnitude of effect depend on food type. Nutr Metab (Lond), 9:8. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-9-8
(9) Babu PV, Liu D. (2008). Green tea catechins and cardiovascular health: an update. Curr Med Chem, 15(18):1840-50.
(10) Khan N, Mukhtar H. (2013). Tea and Health: Studies in Humans. Curr Pharm Des, 19(34): 6141–6147.
(11) Arab L, Liu W, Elashoff D. (2009). Green and black tea consumption and risk of stroke: a meta-analysis. Stroke, 40(5):1786-92. doi: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.108.538470.
(12) Chen X, Liu J, Chen SY. (2013). Sulforaphane protects against ethanol-induced oxidative stress and apoptosis in neural crest cells by the induction of Nrf2-mediated antioxidant response. Br J Pharmacol, 169(2):437-48. doi: 10.1111/bph.12133.
(13) Evans PC. (2011). The influence of sulforaphane on vascular health and its relevance to nutritional approaches to prevent cardiovascular disease. EPMA J, 2(1): 9–14. doi: 10.1007/s13167-011-0064-3
(14) Bose C, Awasthi S, Sharma R, et al. (2018). Sulforaphane potentiates anticancer effects of doxorubicin and attenuates its cardiotoxicity in a breast cancer model. PLoS One, 13(3): e0193918. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0193918
(15) Blekkenhorst LC, Bondonno CP, Lewis JR, et al. (2017).Cruciferous and Allium Vegetable Intakes are Inversely Associated With 15‐Year Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease Deaths in Older Adult Women. J Am Heart Assoc, 6(10): e006558. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.117.006558
(16) Blekkenhorst LC, Sim M, Bondonno CP, et al. (2018). Cardiovascular Health Benefits of Specific Vegetable Types: A Narrative Review. Nutrients, 11;10(5). pii: E595. doi: 10.3390/nu10050595.
(17) Bradley JM, Organ CL, Lefer DJ. (2016). Garlic-Derived Organic Polysulfides and Myocardial Protection. J Nutr, 146(2):403S-409S. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.208066.
(18) Mohanraj R, Sivasankar S.(2014). Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas [L.] Lam)–a valuable medicinal food: a review. J Med Food, 17(7):733-41. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2013.2818.
(19) Dagenais GR, Marchioli R, Yusuf S,et al. (2000). Beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E and cardiovascular diseases. Curr Cardiol Rep, 2(4):293-9.
(20) Kritchevsky SB. (1999). β-Carotene, Carotenoids and the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease. J Nutr, 129(1): 5-8. doi.org/10.1093/jn/129.1.5
(21) D’Elia L, Barba G, Cappuccio FP, et al. (2011). Potassium intake, stroke, and cardiovascular disease a meta-analysis of prospective studies. J Am Coll Cardiol, 57(10):1210-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2010.09.070.