Eating a heart-healthy diet throughout your life can go a long way toward keeping you in top shape as you age. “In fact, heart disease is largely preventable,” says Walter Willett, M.D., professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Eating a healthy diet, combined with not smoking and exercising regularly, could prevent about 80 percent of heart disease cases.”
As a general rule, a heart-healthy diet should focus on whole grains, healthy fats, lean sources of protein, and a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. And you should minimize refined carbohydrates, sugar, and saturated fats.
But certain foods are particularly heart-smart because they’ve been specifically linked to clearer arteries, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and/or reduced inflammation. Incorporating more of them into your overall healthy diet may help decrease your risk of heart disease.
Still, it’s not so much about adding more foods (and more calories) to your daily intake as it is about using these heart-healthy foods to replace less healthy ones.
“You can’t sprinkle nuts on top of a chocolate sundae and think you’ve done something good for your heart,” says Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University. “You need to eat a handful of nuts as a snack instead of a handful of chips or add them to a salad in place of cheese.”
So when you’re looking for heart-healthier options, here are seven foods that stand out.
All whole grains are good for your heart (among other things). In fact, a 2016 analysis of 14 studies published in the journal Circulation found that for every serving of whole grains consumed daily, the risk of cardiovascular disease dropped by 9 percent (compared with eating no whole grains).
But oatmeal is a whole grain that deserves special recognition for its cholesterol-lowering powers.
“Oatmeal is particularly rich in soluble fiber,” Willett says. “And soluble fiber has been shown to bind to cholesterol and keep it out of the bloodstream.” There’s enough evidence to back this up that the Food and Drug Administration allows oatmeal and certain oatmeal products to tout the claim “can help reduce cholesterol” on the product package.
To get the benefits, you need to have at least 3 grams of soluble fiber a day—that’s the amount in ¾ cup of dry oats. People who got that amount saw levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol drop by an average of 9.6 mg/dL and total cholesterol by 11.6 mg/dL, according to a 2014 analysis of 28 studies involving 2,519 people that was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.