Cardiovascular disease is still the number-one killer in America. It accounts for about 37% of all deaths, according to the American Heart Association.
Most of us know that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in saturated animal fats lowers the risk of heart disease. But certain foods have been shown to be particularly beneficial. Of course, no food is a magic bullet—you still need to exercise daily and maintain a healthy weight—but eating the recommended amounts of the following can go a long way toward preventing heart disease…
Like most fruits and vegetables, spinach is rich in vitamins and minerals. What makes spinach stand out for keeping the heart healthy is folate, one of the B vitamins. According to several studies, including an extensive report from the Harvard School of Public Health, folate helps prevent the buildup of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
How much: Two cups of raw spinach (about two ounces) has 30% of the daily value (DV) for folate...one-half cup of cooked spinach provides 25%. Frozen and fresh spinach are both good, but beware of canned spinach-it may have excessive amounts of salt. Too much salt increases blood pressure, and high blood pressure is another major risk factor for cardiovascular disease
Alternatives: Asparagus. Four spears have 20% of the DV of folate. Also, many breakfast cereals are fortified with folate-check the labels.
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s reduce inflammation and make your blood less "sticky," which prevents plaque-fatty deposits—from clogging your arteries. Having unclogged arteries reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke.
How much: The American Heart Association recommends two to three three-ounce servings of salmon a week. Fresh or frozen, farmed or wild, is fine, but go easy on canned salmon, which may be high in salt.
Alternatives: Other cold-water fish high in omega-3 fatty acids include mackerel, lake trout, sardines, herring and albacore tuna. If you don't like fish, have one teaspoon of ground flaxseeds daily-sprinkle on cereal, yogurt or salads, and drink plenty of water to avoid constipation.
Tomatoes are loaded with lycopene, a carotenoid that gives them their color. Lycopene reduces cholesterol in the body. Too much cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which decreases blood flow to the heart—and that can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Cooked and processed tomato products, such as spaghetti sauce and tomato juice, provide the greatest benefits. Researchers at Cornell University found that cooking or processing tomatoes boosts lycopene levels and makes lycopene easier for the body to absorb. Look for low-sodium or no-salt-added products.
If you like ketchup, another source of lycopene, buy an organic brand, made with pure cane sugar, not processed high-fructose corn syrup. Organic ketchup can contain up to three times as much lycopene as nonorganic brands, according to a study published by the United States Department of Agriculture. Other organic tomato products weren't studied, so it is not yet known if they're also higher in lycopene.
How much: One cup of tomato juice (about 23 milligrams, or mg, of lycopene) or one-half cup of tomato sauce (20 mg) daily. A medium raw tomato has 4.5 mg.
Alternative: Watermelon (one and a half cups of cut-up watermelon contain 9 mg to 13 mg of lycopene).
Oatmeal is one of the best and most studied sources of soluble fiber. Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns to gel during digestion. It then acts like a sponge to absorb excess cholesterol from your body. That's good for your heart. Studies show that five grams (g) to 10 g of soluble fiber a day can reduce LDL "bad" cholesterol by about 5%.
Soluble fiber also helps remove saturated fat in your digestive tract before your body can absorb it. That's also good for your heart.
How much: One and a half cups of cooked Oatmeal daily. This provides 45 g of fiber, enough to lower cholesterol. Rolled oats and steel-cut oatmeal work equally well to help lower cholesterol, but beware of flavored instant oatmeal it is likely to have sugar added. Too much sugar in your diet increases the chance of inflammation, a risk factor for atherosclerosis. Sugar also can lead to weight gain, which is another risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Alternatives: Kidney beans and brussels sprouts each have three g of soluble fiber per one-half cup, cooked.
Pomegranates are loaded with polyphenols, antioxidants that neutralize free radicals, which can damage the body's cells.
Polyphenols help to maintain cardiovascular health by scooping up free radicals before they damage arteries.
These chemical substances also are believed to reduce LDL "bad" cholesterol. Red wine and purple grape juice are great sources of polyphenols, but pomegranates have amounts even higher
How much: 15 ounces of concentrated pomegranate juice daily. This is the amount used in most studies. Look for products that are labeled 100% juice, or concentrated, with no added sugar.
Caution: Pomegranate juice may affect the metabolism of prescription drugs and may cause blood pressure to decrease too much when combined with certain blood pressure medications. Check with your doctor.
Alternatives: Red wine (no more than two five-ounce glasses a day for men and one for women) and purple grape juice (four to six ounces a day).
Eat Citrus to Protect the Heart
In a study of nearly 35,000 women ages 55 to 169, researchers found that women who consumed the most flavanones, a flavonoid antioxidant found primarily in citrus fruits (such as grapefruit and oranges), had a 22% lower risk for death from heart disease than those who consumed the least.
Theory: Flavonoids help prevent blood clots and promote blood vessel health. If you take medication, ask your doctor whether citrus affects the drug's effectiveness.
In an analysis of six years of data on 12,644 I people, researchers found that participants with the lowest blood levels of vitamin D had systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) blood pressures that, on average, were 3 mmHg (millimeters of mercury, a unit of pressure) and 1.6 mmHg higher, respectively, than those with the highest vitamin D levels.
Theory: Vitamin D increases the elasticity of blood vessels, which promotes normal blood pressure.
Self-defense: Get 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily from food (such as milk) or supplements...or from 10 to 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight two to three times a week.