Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women and men in the United States. We all know a healthy diet can help reduce your risk, especially when coupled with regular exercise and maintaining a reasonable weight. But what really are the best foods to include on your weekly menu to keep your heart healthy and strong?
"When it comes to prevention, increasing total dietary fiber and unsaturated fats is the way to go," according to Linda Van Horn, PhD, registered dietitian (RD), member of the American Heart Association's nutrition committee, and professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern Medical School in Chicago.
Eating unsaturated fats, like omega-3 fatty acids and olive oil, can help to reduce triglycerides, which inhibit blood from clotting and our arteries from becoming clogged with plaque. And a diet rich in soluble fiber, which is often found in legumes and some fruits and vegetables, helps to lower your LDL cholesterol. Here are 10 foods that are rich in heart-healthy nutrients.
Although these little fish tend to have a bad reputation, they are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, along with calcium and niacin. Try them fresh on the grill or use canned sardines packed in oil on salads, in sandwiches, or in sauces.
Recommended serving size: Fresh, 3 whole sardines: 281 calories Canned in oil, 3.5 ounces drained: 220 calories
If you're looking for a comforting breakfast, start your day off with oatmeal for an instant boost of fiber. Oatmeal also has a low glycemic index, which helps to provide lasting energy and keeps hunger at bay. Look for rolled oats, and add some raisins, apples, and honey for flavor. Try to avoid instant oatmeal, since it is loaded with sugars that you don't need.
Recommended serving size: Raw, 1/3 cup: 113 calories Made with water, heaping 3/4 cup: 98 calories
Sick of salmon, but always eating it for the health benefit? Try mackerel instead. An excellent source of omega-3s, mackerel is also packed with the antioxidant mineral selenium, which may help protect the body from heart disease and cancer.
Recommended serving size: 3.5-ounce fillet: 220 calories
Women who are looking for an easy way to get omega-3s on the go can grab a small handful of walnuts for an afternoon snack. "Although they are high in fat, most of it is polyunsaturated fat, which is considered a 'good fat' and, thus, they are fine to eat in moderation," says Rachel Brandeis, a registered dietitian in Atlanta, Georgia, and spokesperson for American Dietetic Association. Add some to your green salad, or give chicken salad a nutrition boost by adding ground walnuts.
Recommended serving size: Shelled, scant 1/2 cup: 344 calories
Tofu is made from soybeans, which have been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease risk by lowering LDL cholesterol, says Brandeis. A diet containing 25 grams of soy protein and 50 to 60 milligrams of soy isoflavones can reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Tofu usually absorbs the flavor of whatever else you're cooking with it, so add it to a chicken or beef stir-fry dish, salad, or chili.
Recommended serving size: Firm, 3.5 ounces: 73 calories
Known for their laxative effect, prunes are an excellent source of fiber and iron, and regular consumption has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol in the blood. Prunes may also help protect you against colon cancer. If you're not a prune fan, plums are also a decent source of fiber and beta-carotene.
Recommended serving size: Plums, two: 34 calories Pitted prunes, five: 71 calories
Like many legumes, kidney beans are a low-fat, high-soluble fiber protein source. These vitamin-rich beans also have a low glycemic index and are cholesterol-free. Add them to salads and chili, as they truly are almost a perfect health food. Both the canned and dried beans are equally high in fiber, but canned varieties are likely to have a higher salt content, so stick with dried varieties for maximum heart benefits.
Recommended serving size: Kidney beans, dry, 1/4 cup: 133 calories Kidney beans, canned, heaping 1/3 cup, drained: 100 calories Chickpeas, dry, 1/4 cup: 160 calories Chickpeas, canned, heaping 1/3 cup, drained: 160 calories
Whole-grain barley is rich in soluble fiber and insoluble fiber, which is good for combating constipation. A decent protein source, barley also contains a good supply of iron and minerals. Beware when choosing which barley to buy. So-called "pearl barely" lacks the outer husk, and thus, most of the nutrients are removed. Look for whole-grain barley cereals, or substitute whole-grain barley for rice and pasta side dishes once a week.
Recommended serving size: Dry, 1/4 cup: 151 calories
Published on BHG.com, October 2004.