Top 5 Heart-Healthy Foods

Kayli Dice February 14, 2020
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Kayli Dice
As a Registered Dietitian and former personal chef, Kayli deeply understands the power of food-as-medicine. She holds a Masters in Nutrition & Physical Performance and has worked with hundreds of people to prevent and reverse chronic disease through changing their eating habits.

It’s that time of the year when peoples’ New Year’s resolutions fade and the foods that they may have sworn off start to creep back onto their plates. 

During this month and throughout the year you can help your patients stay engaged and inspired by offering fresh information on why and, more importantly, how to recommit to their goals. February is American Heart Month, so we put together a list of the top 5 heart-healthy foods for you to share with your patients. (Click here for a PDF version to share!)

Heart health facts

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States - and it costs us over $219 billion every year in health care services, medicines, and lost productivity. In addition, disease risk disproportionately affects those in certain ethnic or racial groups. For example, African Americans are twice as likely to have a stroke, 30% more likely to die from heart disease, and 40% more likely to have high blood pressure than Whites. But the good news is that we now know how to reduce the risk and prevent cardiovascular disease - nutrition and lifestyle changes go a long way. 

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1. Leafy greens

Vitamin K found in greens such as broccoli, spinach, kale, and collard greens may help improve the health of your heart. Phylloquinone (vitamin K) found in abundance in green veggies may play a role in building a healthy structure of the heart. Greens are also high in nitrates that have been shown to reduce blood pressure and decrease arterial stiffness and lowers the risk of heart disease. Higher consumption of leafy green veggies is linked to a significantly lower risk of coronary heart disease so make sure to incorporate them into your meals every day! 

General recommendation (for most adults): 2-3 cups per day (cooked). Raw greens take 2 cups to equal 1 cup nutrition equivalent. 

Tips to boost your intake: Try adding a handful of greens into your smoothies or soups, add sauteed greens to your bowl, make your tofu scrambles full of greens by adding a few handfuls there as well! 

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2. Oats 

Oatmeal is easy and so good for the heart. Quick and hearty, it’s satisfying and great for everyone in your family. One of the reasons why oatmeal is beneficial for your heart and feels satisfying is due to fiber. Fabulous fiber as they are known at times, every one-cup cooked serving provides 4 grams of fiber that help lower blood cholesterol levels so that it prevents the clogging of your arteries. In addition, oats have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that can prevent atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of your arteries which leads to heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease) and maintain a healthy artery. It can also help with weight loss and weight control due to its high water and soluble fiber content! 

General recommendation (for most adults):  ½ cup dry or 1 cup cooked per day. 

Tips to boost your intake: You can add oats to pancakes, muffins, and smoothies. Homemade breakfast bars are easy to make (search your meal planner for some easy and tasty recipes!) too. Also, add steel cut oats to risotto and rice dishes as well as in your plant-based burgers (patties)! 

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3. Nuts 

Nuts are excellent sources of healthy fats like omega-3 and heart-healthy plant-protein. Studies show that those who regularly eat nuts are less likely to have heart attacks and death from cardiovascular disease compared to those that may not eat them often. The unsaturated fats in nuts may help lower the ‘bad’ cholesterol or LDL and raise the ‘good’ cholesterol, HDL. Omega-3 fatty acids may also help prevent blood clots. Because different nuts provide different nutrients, it’s best to mix it up a bit and enjoy trying a variety of nuts into your day and week. 

General recommendation (for most adults):  1 ounce of nuts (about a handful) 5 or more times a week. 

Tips to boost your intake: Try to include plain, unsalted (and preferably unroasted) nuts in your meals every day - in your snacks, salads, and oatmeals. Try a handful of nuts sprinkled over your non-dairy yogurt for a great snack. Nuts are great in muffins, pancakes, and granola, too! 

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4. Legumes 

Legumes include all varieties of beans, plus split peas and lentils. Legumes are high in heart-healthy compounds like fiber, plant-based protein, minerals, and antioxidants. Consuming beans and lentils is associated with better weight and insulin control, lower blood pressure, and cholesterol. Beans are also packed with phytates and folate that may help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, stroke, and even depression. And phytoestrogens found in soybeans have been found to reduce blood cholesterol levels and slow down bone loss - which leads to the prevention of heart disease and osteoporosis.

General recommendation (for most adults):  3 servings a day (1 serving = ¼ cup hummus, ½ cup cooked beans/tempeh/tofu/lentils, or 1 cup of fresh peas or sprouted lentils)

Tips to boost your intake: Add legumes to soups, salad, pasta sauces, fried rice, bowls, and casseroles. Burritos, tacos, baked beans, bean spreads and dips are a great way to incorporate legumes as well. 

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5. Garlic and Onions

Garlic and onions not only boost flavor in your meals but they also help boost immunity and heart health. Historically, garlic was used for its medicinal benefits and as a “natural antibiotic” by many cultures. It’s been found that garlic can have a positive impact on your arteries, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Raw garlic may give you heartburn or upset stomach so make sure to cook your garlic but cook lightly to keep the beneficial compounds intact.

Onions are packed with beneficial compounds like phytochemicals and flavonoids that may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Specifically, quercetin in onions acts like an antioxidant in your body to lower blood pressure. Sulfur in onions acts as a natural blood thinner and prevents blood platelets from clustering. When platelets clump together, it increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. 

General recommendation (for most adults):  Garlic: 1-2 cloves per day; Onions: try to use some daily in your cooking! 

Tips to boost your intake: Add them in soups, sauces, rice and pasta dishes. Boost flavors in dressings by adding finely diced or minced garlic and onions. Add them to all of your roasted veggies - they add a ton of flavor without the need to rely heavily on salt.  

And remember, both healthy and unhealthy eating is contagious! That’s why it’s key to focus on diets that run in the family rather than genetics - together we can pass down habits that promote health rather than disease for generations to come.

Food is medicine - share the good news, today!

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