By Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D. , February 9, 2010 - 11:46am
My husband was first told he had high cholesterol at 30 and since then he’s become acutely conscious of his heart health—particularly which foods are heart-healthy. I thought for sure when I pulled together a list of “surprising” foods that promote heart health , he’d look at me and say, “Duh!” Instead he surprised me by raising his eyebrows and smiling (probably because he could now add more foods to his “good for your heart” list). Find 10 recipes for brownies and more heart-healthy comfort foods here .
Here are 6 on-the-go snacks that can, surprisingly, help your heart. Fortunately these foods are common items that we often have in our refrigerator and pantry.
Popcorn: Popcorn delivers polyphenols—antioxidants linked to improving heart health. Gram for gram, popcorn boasts three times more polyphenols than kidney beans (the highest vegetable polyphenol source) and four times more than cranberries (the best fruit source), according to recent research out of the University of Scranton. Get a yummy, super-easy recipe for Cheesy Popcorn here .
What’s more, popcorn is a whole grain—and people who eat plenty of whole grains tend to be leaner and have a lower risk of heart disease than those who don’t.
Dark Chocolate: Researchers have discovered that eating moderate amounts of flavanol-rich dark chocolate has a blood-thinning effect, which can benefit cardiovascular health, and it may also boost the immune system by reducing inflammation. Some research also suggests cocoa may help lower blood pressure. Find a recipe for heart-healthy French Silk Pie and more chocolate recipes here .
It appears that a compound in cocoa, called epicatechin, boosts nitric oxide, a substance that has been shown to be crucial to healthy blood vessels. (Plentiful levels of nitric oxide help keep blood pressure from climbing.) Be sure to choose dark chocolate, ideally one that’s 70 percent cocoa solids; milk chocolate lacks significant levels of epicatechin.
Yogurt: Research shows yogurt may protect against gum disease. And people with gum disease—which affects up to 50 percent of American adults—are twice as likely to suffer from heart problems. (Find 10 healthy recipes using yogurt here .)
Researchers from Japan analyzed dietary intakes from nearly 1,000 adults and found those who consumed the highest levels of dairy—specifically yogurt and yogurt-type drinks—had the healthiest gums. They credit probiotics (a.k.a. “good bacteria”) as one possible champion of gum health, possibly countering the growth of the “unfriendly” bacteria in the mouth. Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear how much yogurt (or other fermented dairy foods) you’d need to consume to reap the benefits.
Apples: Apples were 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 34,000-plus women for nearly 20 years. Finnish researchers found that frequent apple eaters had the lowest risk of suffering strokes compared with nonapple eaters after studying dietary data collected over 28 years from 9,208 men and women. (Find a recipe for Apple Cupcakes and more heart-healthy apple recipes here .)
What explains the hearty benefits? Researchers believe that the strong antioxidant flavonoid compounds found in apples—quercetin, epicatechin, epigallocatechin, kaempferol and other polysyllabic wonders—play a key role by preventing “bad” LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and triggering a series of events that result in the buildup of plaque in arteries, as well as inhibiting inflammation. 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.
Nuts: Nuts are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and 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 per week have a lower incidence of heart disease than people who eat them less often. Eat more with delicious recipes for Spiced Spanish Almonds and more nut recipes here .
Raisins: Raisins may help protect both your gums and your heart. Research has shown that antioxidants in raisins fight the growth of a type of bacteria that can cause inflammation and gum disease. And dealing with gum disease can help you avoid heart disease. Last summer, a major heart journal and a major periodontal journal simultaneously published a consensus paper that outlines the link between the two diseases: inflammation.
What are your favorite heart-healthy foods? Tell us what you think below.