The 10 Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Heart Health
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., and research suggests an anti-inflammatory diet is one of the best approaches to preventing and reducing risk. This is because most all forms of heart disease—from hypertension to atherosclerosis to blood clots to heart attacks and strokes—are driven and worsened by underlying chronic inflammation. The mechanism works like this:
- Poor diet habits and a sedentary lifestyle over a period of time irritate the body, leading to the development of underlying inflammation.
- This low-grade inflammation doesn't go away and causes LDL (aka "bad" cholesterol) to slowly form deposits within the lining of blood vessels. These deposits start to narrow passageways in blood vessels, increasing pressure and risk of blockage.
- The deposits also lead to additional inflammation, creating a perpetual feedback cycle and one that other factors like excess body fat and stress aggravate further.
Reducing chronic inflammation with diet is one of the best approaches to both prevent and manage heart disease, and there are few anti-inflammatory foods that pack a big punch. Check out these 10 top anti-inflammatory foods for heart health.
Recipe pictured above: Edamame & Veggie Rice Bowl
Edamame is a good source of protein, fiber, potassium and magnesium—a nutrient combination that helps to keep both blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check by easing chronic inflammation. Substituting plant-based protein sources for higher-fat animal protein has also been linked to a reduced heart disease risk. All beans and legumes boast similar benefits, but some research suggests that compounds called isoflavones in soy-based proteins (like edamame) may target cholesterol levels even more. Not an edamame or soy fan? That's okay—just look for ways to eat more beans, peas or lentils during the week.
2. Mediterranean Cooking Staples: Olive Oil and Garlic
Several decades ago, health statistics suggested that individuals living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea had significantly lowered risk of heart disease. This caught researchers attention because, while the Mediterranean diet was largely made up on nutrient-dense foods, 35% to 40% of daily calories came from fat.
Fast-forward to today and a Mediterranean eating approach is now considered one of the healthiest ways to eat, some of which goes back to the cooking staples used in the Mediterranean like extra-virgin olive oil and garlic. Made up of healthy unsaturated fats, extra-virgin olive oil contains a unique anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal, while garlic offers bold flavor along with potential anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-bacterial benefits thanks to sulfur compounds called allicin.
Recipe pictured above: Stuffed Potatoes with Salsa & Beans
This starchy vegetable tends to get a bad rap, but it can be beneficial to heart health (particularly when chosen over refined grains and starches). The reason is that loading up on potassium-rich foods is just as important as decreasing sodium when it comes to keeping blood pressure in check, and potatoes are great sources.
In fact, a medium baked sweet potato provides 12% DV for potassium while a medium baked potato provides 20% DV (more than double the potassium in a banana). They also add fiber which is important for cholesterol and gut health and weight management, and sweet potatoes are also excellent sources of carotenoids which minimize free radicals from creating new inflammation. To keep things healthy, watch portion size, cooking methods (French fries don't count), and added ingredients or toppings. (Learn more about why potatoes are so good for you.)
4. Cold-Water Fish
Cold-water fish have more fat, a large proportion of which is from polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids that numerous studies associate with providing beneficial cardiovascular effects including lowered blood pressure and reduced arterial inflammation.
The research is so strong that the American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish twice per week (or about 6-8 ounces per week) to gain these heart-protective benefits, so look for ways to add more in if you're not getting that. Some of the best sources omega-3 seafood sources that are also tend to be lower in mercury are salmon, canned light tuna, catfish, pollock, sardines, anchovies and shrimp.
5. Walnuts and Almonds
Recipe pictured above: Walnut-Rosemary Crusted Salmon
Consuming approximately an ounce of tree nuts like walnuts or almonds most days of the week appears to provide a cardio-protective effect. In fact, large population studies suggest regular nut intake may actually reduce risk of heart disease by 35% compared to individuals who rarely eat nuts.
The combination of unsaturated fatty acids, fiber, folate, the antioxidant vitamin E, bioactive plant compounds known as phytosterols and potassium trigger several anti-inflammatory effects. Walnuts and almonds are some of the best, but pistachios and other tree nuts, as well as peanuts, offer similar benefits.
6. Zucchini Noodles and Cauliflower Rice
Recipe pictured above: Trapanese Pesto Pasta & Zoodles with Salmon
Eating five or more servings of vegetables and fruits each day is one diet practice that research consistently associates with reducing risk of heart disease and easing inflammation in the body. But let's be honest: getting five or more servings in regularly can be tough. But the current trend to substitute veggies for refined carb side dishes makes it much easier to meet this daily goal.
Use zucchini "noodles" or spaghetti squash strands in place of pasta or serve a saucy main dish over mashed or riced cauliflower to squeeze in an extra produce serving or two. These swaps may also cut calories and carbs which help in managing body weight, another factor that impacts heart disease risk.
Recipe pictured above: Homemade Multi-Seed Crackers
Wondering what the big deal is with flax? Flaxseeds are one of the best sources of plant lignans, a unique type of fiber that's not widespread in foods. Lignans have a fibrous structure and also contain bioactive polyphenols and an omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
The anti-inflammatory effects from this nutrient combination work to improve lipid and blood pressure levels and are why incorporating lignan-rich flaxseeds are considered so beneficial to preventing heart disease. Add a little ground or whole flaxseed in each day by sprinkling it in hot or cold cereal, baked goods and smoothies.
8. Strawberries and Blueberries
When it comes to fruit options, berries like strawberries and blueberries are some of the best picks because they are good sources of two different polyphenols, anthocyanins and resveratrol, associated with the rich red-purple hues in the skin.
Both compounds act as antioxidants by preventing oxidative damage and inflammation, which research suggests may reduce heart disease risk by improving blood flow, decreasing blood pressure and preventing the thickening of blood vessel walls. Berries are also a good source of fiber (2 to 4 grams per ½ cup), a large portion of which is soluble fiber that is associated with reducing cholesterol values.
9. Dark Chocolate
Recipe pictured above: Dark Chocolate Truffles
Don't get too excited, because I'm not suggesting that eating dark chocolate daily prevents heart disease. Excessive added sugars and calories actually aggravate inflammation and heart disease. (Sorry!)
But, I am suggesting that in order to sustain healthy eating long-term, it has to be realistic. And a component of healthy eating is finding ways to enjoy sweets in moderation. A small piece of dark chocolate (60% cacao or higher) is one of those sweet treats to consider due to its flavonoid content (compounds associated with reducing risk of blood clots and lowering blood pressure).
A 1- to 2-ounce serving of dark chocolate should be an occasional treat—just make sure to keep an eye on overall added sugar intake. Also, avoid dark chocolate made with alkalized or Dutch-processed cocoa for maximum flavonoid benefit.
10. Leafy Greens
All fruits and vegetables are good, but leafy greens are some of the best veggies to load up on. They're packed with potassium and magnesium, two minerals are key in blood pressure management. Plus, they're chock-full of carotenoids and vitamin C, which research says eating more of can help reduce plaque in arteries.
Leafy greens show some of the strongest research-backed health potential when it comes to reducing inflammation related to heart disease and overall health. Keep a variety of greens on hand to not only toss for a salad but also stir into hot soups, pastas and entrees, and aim to get in at least a cup a day.
Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.