Many foods—from the everyday to the exotic—are rich in nutrients that may help keep your arteries clear and your heartbeat stable.
Start your day with a bowl of oatmeal and some orange wedges. Enjoy a hearty bowl of bean soup for lunch. Grab a handful of peanuts for a midafternoon snack. For dinner, tuck into some grilled salmon and spinach salad drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.
This menu features common foods full of nutrients believed to benefit heart health, according to experts we consulted from the Harvard School of Public Health: Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology; Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology; and Dr. Teresa Fung, adjunct professor of nutrition.
But if you want to splurge on some slightly more exotic selections, try quinoa, kale, avocados, berries, and dark chocolate, which our experts also mentioned. Here's why all of these foods rank high on the heart-health scale.
This whole grain is full of soluble fiber, which prevents the body from absorbing cholesterol. "Rolled oats are good, but steel-cut oats are even better," says Dr. Fung. Steel-cut oats take longer to digest, which means they have a low glycemic index. Low-glycemic foods are less likely to cause spikes in blood sugar. Over time, long periods of high blood sugar can lead to health problems linked to heart disease, such as obesity and diabetes.
These popular, widely available fruits have a lot going for them: they're rich in cholesterol-banishing soluble fiber; potassium, which helps counterbalance the blood pressure–raising effects of sodium; and vitamin C.
Black, white, navy, kidney, garbanzo, and other beans all provide hearty doses of protein, fiber, and minerals, as well as phytonutrients (substances found in plants thought to have beneficial effects). Eating beans can help lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure and dampen your blood sugar response. Like oats, they also have a low glycemic index.
Spinach and kale
Dark-colored leafy greens like spinach and kale are not only packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, they also contain alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. Although not as beneficial as the omega-3s found in fish (see "Salmon," page 7) leafy greens offer an alternative omega-3 source for vegetarians. "Leafy greens are very nutrient-dense—they deliver a lot of nutrients without a lot of calories," says Dr. Hu.
Like olives, avocados are a rich source of monounsaturated fat. They also contain substantial amounts of fiber, potassium, and several vitamins, as well as phytosterols—plant-based compounds that compete with cholesterol for absorption in the digestive system, thus helping lower blood cholesterol levels.
Extra-virgin olive oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is one of the key components of the Mediterranean diet, which has been widely touted for its heart-protecting effects. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat, which helps lower harmful LDL cholesterol. Olive oil also seems to discourage blood from clotting too easily and helps smooth out blood sugar levels. "Extra-virgin" means that the olives were pressed without high heat or chemicals, preserving the antioxidant chemicals known as polyphenols, which may also have helpful anti-inflammatory effects.
Peanuts (which are actually legumes) and tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans, and pistachios) are excellent sources of fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, all known to protect heart health. Eating nuts lowers harmful LDL cholesterol, raises protective HDL cholesterol, and lowers blood pressure.
Fatty fish such as salmon are the leading dietary source for omega-3 fatty acids, which lower heart rate and blood pressure and keep blood vessels flexible. "There's good evidence that people who eat more fish have a lower risk of dying from heart disease," says Dr. Mozaffarian, noting that the clearest benefit comes from preventing deaths caused by irregular heartbeats, known as arrhythmias.
Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and other berries are all bursting with plant-derived chemicals known as polyphenols. These may help protect the heart by neutralizing oxidized LDL, which forms plaque inside the arteries.
Native to South America, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is unique among plant-based foods because of its high protein content, says Dr. Hu. It's also a good source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa is rich in flavanols, which may help lower blood pressure. But beware: just 2 ounces of dark chocolate deliver about 300 calories, so enjoy this sweet treat in moderation.
Our experts all stressed the importance of eating a wide variety of fresh, unprocessed foods, rather than focusing on "superfoods" for getting high amounts of specific nutrients. "It's really about the whole package—the combination of nutrients and micronutrients that occur together in different foods that improve the overall quality of your diet," says Dr. Hu.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.