Certain heart-healthy foods truly act like medicine for your blood vessels, says integrative cardiologist Joel K. Kahn, MD, and these are the best to eat to prevent or reverse heart disease.
First: Break up with soda
An astounding 180,000 people die each year, worldwide, due to the consumption of sugary drinks, and about 45,000 of those deaths are from heart attacks. Heart disease might set in because people who drink many soft drinks tend to gain weight, become diabetic, and suffer premature heart blockages. Soft drinks also elevate blood sugars, which coat proteins and fats, rendering them into a harmful form that damages your arteries. Harvard researchers, who have been studying more than 40,000 physicians and 88,000 nurses for more than two decades, found that women who consumed more that two servings of a sugary beverage a day were 40 percent more likely to develop heart disease than women who drank fewer. Men who drank the most sodas were 20 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those who drank the least.
Power Rx: Give up soda. If you drink several a day, be realistic. Start by swapping one for iced tea. Or water a soda down by mixing half a glass with seltzer. Over time, drink less and less soda until you get to zero.
Nearly everything you could possibly buy in the produce section of your grocery store is true medicine to the body. Plant foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and special phytonutrients, all of which are good for the heart. Asparagus, bell peppers, and bok choy, for example, are rich sources of B vitamins, especially vitamin B6, which helps lower homocysteine (an amino acid linked to heart disease) and C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation). Carrots and tomatoes, as well as the fruits oranges and bananas, are rich in carotenoids including lycopene, an important antioxidant. It’s no wonder that the Harvard Nurses’ Healthy Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study found that people who ate eight or more servings a day were 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke than people who consumed one and a half servings or fewer.
Power Rx: Eat one more serving of fruits and vegetables than you had yesterday, and keep this up for a week. Next week, add another serving. Keep doing this until you’ve surpassed five. Ideally, keep going until you hit somewhere between eight and twelve servings.
Arugula, lettuce, beets, kale, spinach, and some other veggies are all rich sources of nitrates, a form of nitrogen they absorb from the soil. During digestion, that compound is converted into an important gas: nitric oxide, which makes arteries resist contraction, plaque, and blood coagulation, so strokes and heart attacks can’t occur. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London found that those who consumed a nitrate-rich meal—such as a bowl of lettuce—experienced an 11.2-mmHg drop in blood pressure within just a few hours, a reduction that lasted all day long. This important improvement in blood pressure rivals the best of powerful and widely prescribed drugs.
Power Rx: Add greens to everything (soups, sandwiches, smoothies, and whatever else you can think of), or try a glass of beet juice every day.
Spices and herbs
One of the easiest ways to protect your heart is also the tastiest. Many herbs and spices are medicine for the body. They are concentrate from plants, so they contain the same protective chemicals that plants use to ward off pests and disease. When we consume these chemicals from spices, they protect the cells in our body from disease too.
The allium in garlic has been shown to improve blood cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and lower the risk of developing heart disease. Turmeric is rich in curcumin, which has been shown to reduce cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar. Ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory herb that has been shown to thin the blood. The sweet spice cinnamon may improve blood flow and help normalize blood sugar.
Power Rx: Sprinkle apple pie spice (which contains cinnamon, along with cloves, allspice, and nutmeg) on fruit, oatmeal, and even your morning cup of joe. Add Italian seasoning mix onto salads, into soups, and onto potatoes and other side dishes.
Meat that’s as “naked” as possible
I gave up meat many years ago, and I’d love if everyone did the same. That said, I know the idea of forgoing animal products sounds like a steep change for many. A great first step: Make sure the meat you do eat is as naked as possible. I mean meat that contains no antibiotics, hormones, sodium, artificial colors, nitrites, pesticides, or hidden additives. If you buy meat at the supermarket, you can look for labels like “hormone and antibiotic free.” You also want to buy meat that comes from animals that dined on grass or other natural food sources, not from those that consumed grain from a feedlot. Meat from grass-fed animals has more healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Power Rx: Always consume vegetables or fruit with any type of meat. The healing plant chemicals might buffer some of the harmful effects of meat. Make the vegetables and fruits the biggest portion of your dinner plate, and meat the garnish.
Certain types of fish account for your richest source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to reduce inflammation, heart rhythm disturbances, triglyceride levels, and high blood pressure. Diets rich in this fat might prevent plaque from building up in your arteries. These fish are easy to remember with this SMASH acronym: sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, and herring.
Power Rx: Stick to eating fish twice a week, but avoid large fish like swordfish that have a high concentration of mercury
This beverage is a rich source of plant substances called flavonoids that help neutralize oxidation in the body. Particular flavonoids in green tea, called catechins, protect our cells much like a premium gas additive keeps your car engine humming. Black, green, and oolong teas all halt heart disease in several ways, including blocking dietary cholesterol from being absorbed into the bloodstream, regulating levels of blood sugar, and soothing inflammation.
Power Rx: Drink one more cup daily than you already are. (If you don’t sip any, start with one cup). If you’re already a tea drinker, aim for three cups a day—one with each meal. Let it steep for three to five minutes to boost the amount of catechins.
Coffee (in moderation)
For many years people at risk of developing heart disease were told to shun coffee. But without cream and artificial sweeteners, coffee is surprisingly healthy for most people. And despite the caffeine it contains, a cup of dark roasted java may actually lower blood pressure rather than raise it. (Of course, if coffee gives you racing heartbeats or jitteriness, listen to your body and skip it.) A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that drinking three cups of coffee a day could lower the risk of clogged arteries.
Power Rx: Limiting yourself to no more than four cups a day might be a good idea. A study found that people under 55 drinking more than four eight-ounce cups of coffee a day was associated with a shorter life span. Enjoy your java but limit it to reasonable amounts—the American Council of Science and Health reports three to four cups a day provide the most health benefits.
Soluble fiber—found in whole grains, oats, beans, lentils, and vegetables—can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your blood stream, according to Mayo Clinic. The American heart Association explains eating high-fiber foods help control blood sugar and blood cholesterol, and they help keep you full. One meta-analysis found that eating one serving of beans can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol by 5 percent.
Power Rx: Think more beans, less meat. Start by replacing one meat-based meal per week with a bean-heavy meal, and work your way toward eating beans every day. As a bonus, a 2016 study found that loading up on bean- and pea-based proteins is more filling than eating animal products like pork or veal
Avocados, olives, and nuts are a few nutritional options to add to your menu if you want to avoid clogged arteries. That’s because these foods contain healthy unsaturated fats, which, unlike saturated fats, have protective properties for your heart. Avocados and nuts have specifically been linked to a reduction in LDL cholesterol, per WebMD and HeartFoundation.org.
Power Rx: When you need a snack, spread a couple tablespoons of almond butter or a third of an avocado on high-fiber crackers. Unlike a sleeve of Ritz, this one-two punch of healthy fats and fiber will actually fill you up while keeping your arteries happy.