As with everything in nutrition nowadays, knowing what to eat for optimal cardiovascular health is confusing. We’ve decided to cut through the noise and give you a list of some of the most protective foods to include in your diet. These are all foods that can help improve the following cardiovascular risk factors:
Get rid of excess body fat, especially belly fat
Lower insulin and blood sugar levels
Counteract elevated blood pressure
Reduce triglycerides (fat particles circulating in your blood)
Raise HDL (good cholesterol)
Decrease cardiovascular inflammation such as high C-reactive protein
You’ll also notice that these are all whole foods. You won’t find any pasta “made with whole grains” here. No “multi-grain” bread made from ground up wheat and rice flour. These are real foods in their most natural form—the kind that should be making up the vast majority of your cardioprotective diet.
Salmon is known for its high concentration of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA that appear to reduce inflammation in the walls of blood vessels. Salmon also contains the super nutrient astaxanthin, which gives it the pink color and can help reduce oxidized LDL cholesterol. Any time fat or cholesterol are oxidized it means the molecules are damaged and can harm cells and result in the deposition of plaque in the artery walls that lead to atherosclerosis (heart disease).
We can see the benefit of salmon in action with a study of Chinese men who had a high risk of heart disease: When they added salmon to their diet for 8 weeks, cardiovascular inflammation and blood triglycerides decreased and they had an improvement in protective HDL cholesterol.
One review of randomized trials found that berries are an effective and safe option for preventing and controlling heart disease, improving cholesterol, glucose, body composition, blood pressure, and TNF-a (a primary inflammatory marker for cardiovascular disease). How do they do it? Blueberries are packed with fiber and phytonutrients that scavenge free radicals, helping repair damaged proteins in blood vessel walls, while also restoring insulin sensitivity.
Long believed to be the last thing you’d want to eat for a healthy heart, recent research has vindicated eggs and shown that including them in your diet can protect against cardiovascular risk factors. One recent study found that frequently eating eggs improved cholesterol markers more than oatmeal, which is the holy grail of “heart healthy” foods.
Another study found that when overweight men ate 3 eggs a day for 12 weeks, they lost 5 kg of body fat and increased HDL cholesterol from 47 mg/dL to 57 mg/dL, while maintaining total cholesterol levels. Triglycerides, which can raise LDL cholesterol and are linked to inflammation in the arteries, decreased by an average of 45 percent.
Researchers believe it is the naturally high concentration of selenium, lutein, and zeaxanthin in eggs that have an anti-inflammatory effect on the vascular system. Eggs are also a great source of protein and raise levels of the hormone adiponectin, which improves reverse cholesterol transport so that more HDL is produced in the liver.
The main role of the heart is to pump blood containing oxygen and nutrients out to organs and working muscles of the body. Eating beets can help because they improve the body’s ability to extract oxygen. Beets contain compounds called nitrates, which increase nitric oxide, a molecule that allows blood vessels to dilate and constrict, regulating blood flow.
The vessels ability to produce nitric oxide is reduced in response to lack of physical activity or inflammation in the vascular system. Beets will counteract this and when you combine them exercise, you can optimize your body’s ability to produce nitric oxide. Beets also contain abundant antioxidant compounds that have an anti-inflammatory effect and help to scavenge toxins for elimination from the body.
#5: Olive Oil
Identified as a cardioprotective food because of its central role in the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has repeatedly been shown to lower cardiovascular inflammation and improve health of the blood vessels and arteries. For instance, olive oil is rich in CoQ10, an antioxidant that is known to protect the heart by improving cholesterol levels and lowering inflammation. Olive oil consumption is also linked with lower blood pressure and better blood sugar, while helping to modulate body composition.
#6: Almonds & Walnuts
Nuts have long been linked with cardioprotection. Almonds and walnuts leading the way due to their high concentration of phytonutrients and blend of mono- and polyunsaturated fats that lower LDL and raise HDL cholesterol. Almonds and walnuts have also been shown to lower triglycerides, are associated with better body composition, and reduce blood pressure. Research done on athletes shows almonds can improve the ability to use oxygen and lower oxidative stress that causes cardiovascular inflammation.
Watermelon is one of the richest sources of citrulline, an amino acid that the body uses to produce nitric oxide for increased blood flow. Because more oxygen reaches working muscles when nitric oxide is elevated, citrulline supplementation can improve exercise performance. It has also been shown to lower blood pressure in hypertensives and is theorized to be a dietary tool for preventing heart failure, stroke, heart disease, and diabetic vascular disease.
Amaranth is a grain indigenous to Latin America that contains abundant phytonutrients that improve cholesterol levels. It also contains proteins that raise nitric oxide and act as ACE inhibitors, lowering blood pressure. In fact, ACE inhibitors are the first line of defense when doctors prescribe blood pressure lowering medications, and including amaranth in your diet can do this naturally. Amaranth contains fiber, has a wide range of anti-inflammatory nutrients, and is high in protein for a plant-based food, similar to quinoa.
#9: Leafy Greens—Esp. Broccoli and Chard
It’s likely that all leafy greens have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system because they are packed with fiber and antioxidants. We have evidence that broccoli can prevent heart disease: It contains an antioxidant called sulforaphane that helps remove proteins that damage arterial walls and lead to plaque deposition and “clogged arteries.” Swiss chard, another delicious leafy green, is known for lowering blood sugar and treating diabetes in Turkey. It has also been shown to reduce damage to the heart and blood vessels when oxidized fat is circulating in the blood stream.
Probably the last food you’d expect to see on this list, cheese is incredibly rich in nutrients and evidence suggests that when eaten in the context of a healthy diet (low in refined carbs, rich in whole foods), cheese may have beneficial effects for heart health.
A 2017 meta-analysis found a nonlinear inverse association between cheese consumption and heart disease risk: People who ate more cheese had less risk of cardiovascular problems compared to those who ate the least. The majority of studies analyzed had a duration of more than 10 years. A second study from Sweden found that women who ate the most cheese had a 26 percent lower risk of heart attacks than those who ate the least. Finally, a French study found that people with diets higher in cheese had lower levels of cardiovascular inflammation and lower LDL cholesterol.
Researchers theorize that cheese is protective because it provides high-quality protein and calcium, which protect against weight gain. It is also fermented, providing beneficial bacteria and antioxidants like CLA that can lower inflammation.
Final Words: We would be remiss if we didn’t point out the elephant in the room: Context matters. No single food is going to save you if you don’t strive to eat an overall healthy diet and adopt protective lifestyle habits like minimizing stress and getting regular exercise.