Pictured recipe: Chickpea & Quinoa Buddha Bowl
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the U.S., claiming one out of every four lives. And while you might think it won't happen to you (you've got great genes, right?), over time, poor eating habits—those venti flavored lattes, desk-side snacks and late-night pizza runs—can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inflammation, raising your risk for heart attack and stroke.
Related: 7-Day Heart-Healthy Meal Plan
So do your heart a favor. Swap those old diet choices for the heart-healthy foods below. Here's why they can help keep your ticker going strong—plus delicious ways to enjoy them.
Pictured Recipe: Apple-Cinnamon Overnight Oats
It's no secret that whole grains are a healthier choice than their overly processed, refined-grain cousins. A recent analysis of 45 studies found that eating at least three servings a day of whole grains was linked with a 22 percent lower risk of heart disease. That's because whole grains are rich in antioxidants, phytoestrogens and phytosterols—all nutrients that protect against heart disease.
Plus, they're high in fiber, something crucial for heart health. In one Harvard study, women who ate a high-fiber diet had a 40 percent lower risk of heart disease than those on a low-fiber diet. Two best bets for whole grains: oats and barley. They're especially high in soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol.
Pictured Recipe: Avocado-Egg Toast
Whizzed up in a smoothie or mashed and spread on toast, avocados are a yummy way to boost your heart health. They're loaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats—including oleic acid, the same fat that gives olive oil some of its many perks. But that's not all. Avocados are a rich source of potassium—an essential mineral many people don't get enough of that helps lower blood pressure and the risk of stroke. They're high in vitamins and heart-friendly fiber too. Need more convincing? A 2017 review found that eating avocados may help fight metabolic syndrome, a dangerous cluster of conditions that often leads to heart disease.
Eating two or more servings of fish a week is linked with a 30 percent lower risk of developing coronary heart disease, studies show. Fish—especially oily kinds like salmon and tuna—are rich in omega-3 fats, which reduce levels of triglycerides that can cause heart problems. Omega-3s also help lower blood pressure and can help prevent irregular heart rhythms. Which fish is best? No common fish delivers more of the omega-3 fatty acids than salmon. Go for wild-caught Alaskan salmon if you can. Compared to most farmed salmon, it's generally lower in calories and pollutants and higher in omega-3s—and is better for the planet.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Salmon
Pictured Recipe: Berry Chia Pudding
A 2018 analysis found a surprising link between yogurt and heart health in people with high blood pressure. In the study, researchers looked at data collected over 30 years from more than 55,000 women in the Nurses' Health Study, and more than 18,000 men from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. They found that those who ate two or more servings of yogurt a week had a roughly 20 percent lower risk of heart attack or stroke compared to those who ate less. Adding yogurt to an already healthy diet upped the benefits even more.
Even if you don't have high blood pressure, you can still get the heart-healthy benefits. Yogurt is rich in probiotics, live bacteria that play an important role in gut health. By fighting inflammation and keeping cholesterol and blood pressure levels in check, they help keep your heart healthy, too.
Pictured Recipe: Potsticker & Vegetable Soup
Mountains of research studies show that the more fruits and veggies you eat, the lower your risk of heart disease. A 2014 meta-analysis of studies following nearly 470,000 people found that each additional daily serving of fruits and vegetables cut the risk of death by heart disease by an average of 4 percent. The superstars that contributed the most benefits? Leafy green vegetables. Low in calories but high in fiber, leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, kale and cabbage deliver vitamins and minerals essential for heart health. They're especially high in vitamin K, important for proper blood clotting. One surprising recent study in teens suggests that a lack of vitamin K may affect the actual heart structure, leading to a higher risk of heart disease later in life.
Pictured Recipe: Chicken Fajita Bowls
Eating beans regularly is good for your heart, and you don't need to eat a lot of them to benefit. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that having just 1/2 cup of cooked pinto beans a day may help lower cholesterol, thanks largely to their soluble fiber, plus heart-protective flavonoids—the same kind found in chocolate, berries and red wine—which can help lower your risk for heart attack and stroke.
Of course, you don't have to stick to just pinto beans! Go for a wide variety: black beans, kidney beans, cannellini beans, cranberry beans and fava beans, plus other legumes like chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lentils and more. They're chock-full of fiber, magnesium and potassium—all nutrients that help lower blood pressure and keep your heart going strong.
Pictured Recipe: Greens & Roots Salad with Citrus-Walnut Vinaigrette
Nuts are full of vitamins, minerals and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, and have low levels of saturated fats. Research suggests that people who eat nuts—walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, pine nuts and peanuts (which actually are legumes)—two to four days or more a week have a lower incidence of heart disease than people who eat them less often. Does it matter what kind? Some researchers say walnuts win the honors. A study from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania found that walnuts have more high-quality antioxidants than any other variety. And it only takes a small handful—just seven walnuts a day—to get the heart benefits.
Pictured Recipe: Dark Chocolate & Peanut Popcorn
Chocolate has gotten a lot of buzz in recent years as a heart-healthy treat. Cocoa is rich in flavonoids, plant nutrients that help repair cell damage. Flavanols—cocoa's main kind of flavonoid—help lower blood pressure, promote proper blood clotting and boost blood flow to the brain and heart. Add to that a hefty helping of minerals, fiber and other powerful antioxidants, and you have one sweet package. And the heart benefits are impressive: In one study of nearly 5,000 people, nibbling on chocolate five or more times a week was associated with a whopping 57 percent lower risk of heart disease, compared to non-chocolate eaters. (Keep in mind, though, that this was an observational study, so the research didn't prove a cause and effect.)
So go ahead—enjoy, but go easy: Just 1 or 2 ounces a day does the trick. For the most benefits, choose dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa solids.
Pictured Recipe: Herbed Tomato Gratin
An excellent source of vitamins C and A, plus potassium and fiber, tomatoes are also high in lycopene, which works with other vitamins and minerals to help prevent disease. A 2017 analysis of 25 studies found that people with the highest lycopene intake cut their risk of stroke by 26 percent and risk of heart disease by 14 percent. Cooking tomatoes brings out their lycopene, boosting the heart benefits even more.
Pictured Recipe: Roasted Squash & Apples with Dried Cherries & Pepitas
Eating apples was associated with a lower risk of death from both coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease in the Iowa Women's Health Study, which has been tracking more than 34,000 women for nearly 20 years. And Finnish researchers studying dietary data collected over nearly 30 years from 9,208 men and women also found that frequent apple eaters had the lowest risk of strokes compared with non-apple eaters. What explains the heart-healthy benefits? Researchers say it's the strong antioxidant flavonoid compounds found in apples. These compounds play a key role by stopping inflammation and preventing the buildup of plaque in arteries. Apples are also rich in pectin, a form of soluble fiber known to help lower cholesterol, and they provide a decent amount of vitamin C, another antioxidant.
Pictured Recipe: Strawberry Fruit Salad
In a small Finnish study of 72 middle-aged people, eating just under a cup of mixed berries—including strawberries, red raspberries, bilberries (similar to blueberries), lingonberries and other native kinds—each day for eight weeks was associated with higher levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and lower blood pressure. The diverse mix provided a wide range of polyphenols, plant compounds that may increase levels of nitric oxide, which in turn helps relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure.
No bilberries where you live? Not to fear. Fresh or frozen, easy-to-find varieties like cranberries, strawberries and blueberries all deliver heart-healthy antioxidants.
Pictured Recipe: Pomegranate, Cranberry & Brie Bruschetta
Studies show the ruby-red fruit may help reduce the buildup of plaque in arteries and lower blood pressure. Experts believe that pomegranate's benefits come from its powerful punch of polyphenols, including anthocyanins (found in blue, purple and deep-red foods) and tannins (also found in wine and tea). In a 2010 study ranking the antioxidant capacity of 3,100 foods from all over the world, pomegranate juice had the highest antioxidants of any fruit juice.
Pictured Recipe: Basil Vinaigrette
It's been a diet staple in Mediterranean countries—where people tend to live longer—for thousands of years. And for good reason: olive oil is not only excellent for cooking, but it also delivers powerful heart-healthy benefits. Stacks of studies confirm that extra-virgin olive oil in particular helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol and prevents blood clots. It also fights inflammation: researchers have found that oleocanthal, a compound in virgin olive oil, has anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen. Rich in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, olive oil has another plus: studies show it can help you stick to a healthy weight, which can further slash your risk of heart disease. The bottom line: If olive oil isn't a staple in your pantry yet, it should be.
Pictured Recipe: Green Tea-Fruit Smoothie
Sipping an afternoon cup of green tea may be an easy way to help your heart. That's because green tea has catechins, powerful antioxidants that, over time, can significantly reduce levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Drinking a lot of green tea could even add years to your life. An 11-year study that followed 40,530 Japanese adults found that those who drank five cups of green tea a day had a 26 percent lower risk of heart disease and a 16 percent lower risk of death from all causes, compared to those who drank less than one cup a day.
Pictured Recipe:Cold-Brew Coffee
More reason to love your morning cuppa joe: Growing evidence suggests that drinking coffee helps protect the heart, particularly for women. In fact, the more you drink—up to five cups a day—the greater the benefits, some research shows. One study recently published in the journal Circulation reviewed data from the decades-long Framingham Heart Study, which looks at diet and heart health. The researchers found that, compared with non-coffee drinkers, people who drank coffee had a 7 percent lower risk of heart failure and an 8 percent lower risk of stroke. While the study couldn't prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship, it does show a strong link.
Caveat: Step away from the cream and sugar. The health perks apply to plain black coffee, not the super-sweet, high-calorie, caramel-drizzled stuff you get at your local coffee shop. And watch the caffeine—too much can make you jittery during the day and wreck your sleep at night.