Ah, February. The month of love. The time of the year when we think about what our hearts are saying to us—roses are red, violets are blue, etc. It’s important to listen to other ways our heart health is communicating, though. We tend to work our other muscles, biceps, glutes, and legs. But our heart is a muscle, too, and an important one at that. It needs the proper fuel and exercise to make sure it runs properly.
Heart disease accounts for nearly one-third of all deaths worldwide. Studies have found that what you put on your plate directly affects your chances of getting heart disease. With a couple small swaps, you could make a big difference in your cardiovascular health. All it takes is a little planning.
“Every time you eat, you make a conscious choice to be healthy or unhealthy,” says Ronald T. Auer, M.D. with OrthoCincy. And it goes without saying, but you don't have to be a doctor to realize that ditching junk food in favor of smart meal choices will ultimately do your body good in the long run.
I sat down with Alli Bokenkotter, a Registered Dietician at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center about Heart Health. She says, “A heart healthy diet is one of your best weapons to fight against cardiovascular disease. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47% of Americans have at least one of these three.”
Alli and I discussed plenty of great foodie tips on creating a heart healthy diet. Here are 11 things to eat and drink to be kind to your heart.
1. Fish and fish oil
- Eat salmon, tuna, sardines, and fish that are high in omega-3s.
- Take a can of sardines in the oil and pan fry them for a few minutes. Top on a green, leafy salad with a handful of tomatoes, berries, and nuts, such as walnuts which are a good source of omega-3s.
2. Red wine
- You read that correctly. Let’s be real—we want to have a social life, and that is part of health.
- A 4-oz glass of wine has been known to improve good cholesterol levels.
- Be sure to watch your portion when eating nuts; almonds and walnuts are nutrient-dense and have long list of vitamins and minerals.
- Nuts also help satisfy hunger and aid in heart health.
- For meal prep, buy the pre-packaged raw nuts (try to stay away from added oils) or for a budget friendly idea, buy them in bulk and portion into bags for a quick snack.
"Nuts are packed with heart health fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Choose these types of fats more often vs. saturated or trans-fat and your heart will thank you,” Alli says.
- Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries are packed with antioxidants, phytonutrients, and can aid in reducing LDL cholesterol.
- Take a medley and put them on top of plain Greek yogurt and whole grain granola.
5. Whole grains
- Carbs get a bad rap at times, but whole grains are a nutrient-dense food.
- Whole grains are high in fiber (compared to refined) which can help satisfy hunger. Examples include, steel cut oats, brown rice, whole wheat, and buckwheat.
- For breakfast, try an overnight steel-cut oat recipe and top it off with berries and some walnuts. Legumes are also a great source of fiber and protein.
6. Coffee and tea
- Alli clarifies, “One cup of black coffee per week may reduce heart failure and stoke according to the American Heart Association.”
- Green tea has antioxidants, can aid in fat burning, and can help reduce inflammation.
- Check out Matcha tea, which is made with the whole tea leaf, too.
7. Leafy Greens
- Popeye was definitely onto something eating spinach. Kale, collards, parsley, and turnip greens (we could go on and on) have vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, all of which can help reduce blood pressure.
- If you are not into eating greens, throw them in a smoothie with that list of berries above. Or sneak them into a soup or stew. My favorite way to eat greens is to sauté in the Zesty-Z za'atar seasoning and a dash of lemon or lime juice.
8. Bright and shiny!
- Eat bright colored veggies, like carrots, asparagus, garlic, peppers, and broccoli. Veggies contain all vitamins and minerals that can strengthen your heart.
- Are you on the air fryer craze? Take a head of chopped broccoli, drizzle with olive oil, salt, pepper, minced garlic, and lemon zest, air fry at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, and serve it up with some fish.
- Alli says, “Veggies are a great way to curve hunger. You can eat a large volume, for less calories.”
- Are you thinking about breakfast again? Consider chopping up one of these, drizzle some olive oil and crushed red pepper (that is my fave).
- Avocados are a great source of potassium and monounsaturated fats (the good fats).
- Another great way I incorporate avocados is in a homemade dark chocolate pudding.
10. Dark chocolate
- All of this food talk was giving me a sweet tooth. Great news on this front: dark chocolate can boost heart health. The sweet treat is high in antioxidants, so it is the kind of dessert that will love you back.
- Look for a dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa content. I like to buy squares that are pre-packaged for portion control.
11. Spices and Herbs
- Spice it UP! Excessive sodium intake is a main contributor to high blood pressure. Try using spices, herbs, and other non-salt options such as garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, thyme, onion powder, lemon, and lime. Zesty-Z is my favorite go-to; I’ve been using it on everything!
Eating for a healthy heart doesn’t have to be boring. There are tons of food that add nutritional value and taste great.
Alli sums it up saying, “Although nutrition is crucial in preventing and managing heart disease, don’t neglect regular physical activity, quality sleep, and giving a hug can all lower your risk of heart disease.”