With Valentine’s Day smack-dab in the middle of the month, February has a lot of us thinking about matters of the heart. Since 2003, the American Heart Association has been sponsoring National Wear Red Day to bring awareness to heart disease in women and encourage donations to support research. What we eat can have a big impact on heart health. The American Heart Association recommends a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables; high in fiber-rich whole grains and legumes; low in sodium; with a focus on unsaturated fat from foods like nuts, vegetable oils, avocado, and fish; with minimal intake of processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages. Certain foods have also been studied for their potential to boost heart health and promote overall wellness. We’ve rounded up five heart-healthy superfoods to add to your diet.
5 Heart-Healthy Superfoods
Chocolate is rich in flavonoids, which protect the coco plant from toxins in the environment and helps repair damage. Turns out we benefit from these antioxidant powers when we eat foods that contain flavonoids. The particular type that’s primarily found in chocolate is called flavonols. And it’s what gives cocoa its distinctive, pungent taste. Flavonoids have been shown to improve blood pressure and support healthy blood clotting. Darker, minimally processed chocolate gives you more bang for your buck than most commercial chocolates — and go easy on the mix-ins, since the added calories, salt, and sweeteners may negate the benefits of the chocolate. There’s no recommended serving size, but a couple of squares a few times a week will give you some benefits without derailing your diet. (As if we needed another excuse to eat chocolate!)
Berries are packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They also boast a high content of flavonoids and polyphenols — especially anthocyanins, the pigments that give berries their rich red, purple, and blue colors. Berries, and the compounds in them, have been associated with reduced risk factors of cardiovascular disease (high cholesterol and high blood pressure, to name just a few) and various markers of inflammation in the body that may contribute to heart attacks. Toss a handful on top of yogurt or oatmeal or blend them into a smoothie. Top your toast with nut butter and your favorite berries. Cook them into sauces (sweet or savory) or homemade jams. There are countless ways to add berries into your diet!
Avocados are a rich source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, which has been shown to reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Avocados also provide potassium, which is involved in many body processes, including heartbeat and muscle and nerve function. A diet rich in potassium may also help manage blood pressure, a factor in stroke risk. Avocados are also packed with fiber — over for grams are in half of a medium avocado. Just be mindful to keep portions in check, because they’re also calorie-dense. Half an avocado will set you back about 115 calories, so share with a friend or wrap the other half and store it in the fridge for the next day.
Beans are packed with cholesterol-reducing fiber. They also contain health-boosting flavonoids and are a great source of filling vegetarian protein. For example, a half-cup of garbanzo beans provides six grams of fiber and eight grams of protein. Beans, peas, and lentils are extremely versatile in the kitchen. Add them to salads, soups, side dishes, or eat them with eggs and veggies. Roasted chickpeas make a satisfying, crunchy snack. Feeling adventurous? Play around with bean flours (garbanzo or fava, for example) and use it in breads, baked goods, or pancakes. Added bonus: Beans are pretty inexpensive, so they’re great if you’re trying to save your dollars for fancy chocolate.
Flax provides fiber, plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, and lignans, a type of phytoestrogen. Flax has been shown to help lower cholesterol and markers of inflammation and may help lower blood pressure. To help your body absorb all that good stuff more easily, enjoy your flax ground. Add a tablespoon to oatmeal, yogurt, or grain dishes. You can even use it in place of breadcrumbs or mix it with water to form a gel-like substance that can be used as an egg replacer in vegan recipes.
What are your favorite recipes to cook with these heart-heathy superfoods?
By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN: Jessica is a registered dietitian and writer in NYC. She blogs at Keeping It Real Food.