10 best foods for your heart

10 best foods for your heart

(CNN)Keeping your heart healthy is about more than avoiding fast food and overly processed chow. You can also pump up your heart’s health by choosing foods that will help reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation.

The cell walls of oats and barley contain a special type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which has a host of benefits for human health. Studies show that it blunts the body’s insulin response and boosts immunity, and it may be protective during radiation and chemotherapy. But it’s its role in cholesterol reduction that counts for heart health.

“Beta-glucans bind to bile acids and cholesterol in the bloodstream and prevent their absorption into the body,” CNN contributor and registered dietitian Lisa Drayer said. The liver then removes it from the body. “So, if you have high cholesterol, it would be a good idea to incorporate oats or oatmeal for breakfast on a regular basis.”

Other grains, such as rye, wheat, and sorghum, contain beta-glucans but in much smaller quantities than oats and barley. Beta-glucans are also found in seaweed, baker’s yeast and various species of mushrooms such as reishi, shiitake and maitake.

Heart UK says you can replace one of those oat servings with 150 grams (⅔ cup) of cooked pearl barley.

Fish oils, especially omega-3 fatty acids, are critical for maintaining a healthy heart. That means fatty fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, herring, lake trout and sardines and crustaceans such as lobster, oysters and squid are the protein staples of a heart-healthy diet. They all contain health-protective omega-3s, specifically the long-chain variety known as LC omega-3, which contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Long-chain omega-3s have been shown in human clinical trials to prevent heart attacks by helping the heart maintain its rhythm. Studies show that they also make blood less likely to clot, lower blood pressure, keep blood vessels healthy and less likely to narrow, reduce triglycerides and lower inflammation. Whew!

“The plant-based omega-3s in foods like flaxseed, walnuts and canola oil don’t contain DHA and EPA,” Drayer said. “And while there are benefits to the plant ones as well, you can’t count on them as a source for their longer-chain cousins, because they are not necessarily converted into them once they are in the body.”

Fatty fish like salmon have the most long-chain omega-3s, and the American Heart Association recommends adding a 3½-ounce serving to your diet at least twice a week. Children and pregnant women should be careful to consume fish with lower levels of mercury, the association says, such as fresh and water-packed canned salmon.

“You can make healthy foods unhealthy depending on how you cook them,” Drayer said. “For example, if you deep-fry fish, all the unhealthy saturated or trans fat can outweigh the heart-healthy benefits. Ideally, you want to broil, bake, grill or poach — but in water, not in oil. Oil will contribute lots of extra calories. If a menu doesn’t specify, ask how the fish is poached.”

“If you never eat fish, you might consider a fish-oil supplement because of all the research on omega-3’s benefits for heart and brain health,” Drayer said.

“There are some foods fortified with EPA and DHA omega-3s,” added registered dietitian Rahaf Al Bochi, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Some of them are eggs, milk, juices, peanut butter and margarine spreads.”

Salad greens, spinach, kale, swiss chard, collard and mustard greens are rich in vitamins A, C, E and K and contain antioxidants that help rid toxins from the body. But it’s their abundance of calcium, magnesium and potassium that makes them one of the best foods for your heart health.

“Potassium, magnesium, and calcium are known to play a role in blood pressure regulation,” said Al Bochi, who specializes in helping patients with Type 2 diabetes who are at high risk for heart disease.

“Potassium is known to help with limiting the effects of sodium on blood pressure,” she explained, “And it, along with magnesium and calcium, help the walls of the blood vessels relax, which increases blood flow and reduces blood pressure.”

Greens have minimal calories: One cup of spinach or Swiss chard is only 7 calories, and kale has 33. Nutritionists say it’s usually best to get your calcium, magnesium and potassium from foods instead of supplements, so pile that plate high.

Plus, greens — like most vegetables — are full of fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels, prevents constipation (and therefore hemorrhoids) and, by helping you feel full, helps with weight control. And of course, maintaining a healthy weight is a key to good heart health.

Unsalted seeds and nuts are also high in potassium, magnesium and other minerals are known to reduce blood pressure.

Studies on pistachios, for example, find that the nut can reduce blood vessel tightening (called peripheral vascular resistance), heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol. According to one study, a single helping a day was better at lowering blood pressure than two helpings.

Walnuts, pecans, almonds, flaxseed, macadamia nuts and hazelnuts are also good choices. Walnuts are especially high in omega-3s but are the short-chain variety. Still, that’s good for the heart.

“Though to a lesser extent than long-chain omega-3s,” Drayer said, “alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) — a short-chain omega-3 found in walnuts and flaxseed and canola oil — has been associated with protection against high blood pressure and heart disease.”

But keep in mind that all nuts are extremely high in calories. So an American Heart Association recommended serving is going to seem tiny: about 1½ ounces or 2 tablespoons of nut butter. Beware of the added salt, sugar or chocolate that is so appealing on nuts — not good for heart health.

A surprising choice? Beets turn out to be chock full of nitric oxide, which studies show can help open blood vessels and therefore lower your blood pressure. In fact, a small study of Australian men and women found that drinking 500 grams (about 2½ cups) of beet juice significantly lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) within six hours.

That’s not all. Beets and their juice are one of the only sources of betalain, a powerful antioxidant with high anti-inflammatory qualities, which has sparked research into how beets could be used to treat diseases caused by chronic inflammation, such as arthritis, cancer, and heart failure.

Already eating a healthy diet? Be sure to add avocados once a day. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that replacing saturated fat with one nutrient-packed avocado a day could lead to up to a 13.5 milligrams-per-deciliter reduction in blood pressure. That could be enough to keep some people off blood pressure meds, researchers say.

Avocados are a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which can lower both your total cholesterol and your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) while maintaining your “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels. They can also benefit insulin control, which can be very helpful to those with prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes.

Monounsaturated fatty acids are a mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to improve heart health and brain health, lower risk for breast cancer and increase longevity.

A key component of the Mediterranean diet is the use of olive oil for cooking and for dressing salads and vegetables in place of more saturated fats, such as butter.

Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and has been shown to reduce blood pressure and both bad cholesterol and triglycerides while increasing good cholesterol.