Food is medicine when it comes to preventing heart disease — the leading cause of death in the U.S. — just ask cardiologists.
Diet can have a huge impact on heart health, says Dr. Sean Heffron, a cardiologist in the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at NYU Langone Health in New York.
“So what we eat is very important.”
The first step is eliminating processed foods, which are high in salt and fat, and eat more whole fresh foods like fruits and vegetables, says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist, clinical associate professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
“Generally, my mode of diet is following a Mediterranean-style diet,” Goldberg notes. “Many studies have shown that it has cardiovascular benefit in that it helps to control cholesterol, blood sugar. It also lowers risk for heart disease. I practice what I preach.”
The American Heart Association advises people to focus on a heart-healthy eating pattern rather than individual foods, but certain options stand out when it comes to heart health.
Here are heart-healthy foods to add to your menu:
A handful of nuts each day may lower risk of heart disease, studies have found.
“Nuts are high in healthy fat, fiber, minerals, vitamins and several other bioactive compounds, such as antioxidants, which may in part explain their beneficial effects on cardiovascular health,” Marta Guasch-Ferre, a researcher in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, previously told TODAY.com.
Cardiologists list nuts — all types — among their favorite snacks.
But Goldberg singles out almonds and walnuts because they have the most favorable balance of fats, she says. Go for the unsalted kind to limit sodium.
They’re also rich in fiber, vitamin E, zinc, potassium, magnesium, iron and calcium.
Deeply colored fruits and vegetables
Diets rich in fruits and vegetables — whether fresh, frozen, canned or dried, but “with the exception for white potatoes” — are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, according to a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.
It recommends eating whole fruits and vegetables rather than juicing them to get the most fiber, and choosing deeply-colored produce such as purple cabbage, sweet potatoes, broccoli, pomegranate, mango and peaches, which tend to be more nutrient dense than paler options.
Dark leafy greens
They include kale, spinach, broccoli, bok choy, collard greens, arugula and mustard greens.
The darker, the better, nutritionist JJ Smith told TODAY in a segment that aired on Feb. 6, 2024.
She's a big fan of green smoothies, but also likes the vegetables in a salad.
Dark leafy greens are high in dietary nitrates, which convert into nitric oxide in the body, Smith noted.
"That relaxes the blood vessels and lowers the blood pressure," she said.
Dark leafy greens are also rich in magnesium. Low levels of the mineral have been linked to elevated markers of inflammation, which can increase the risk of heart disease, experts previously told TODAY.com.
Research has linked these deep-red vegetables to lowering inflammation and reducing blood pressure.
Beets contain nitrates and betalians, two beneficial plant compounds that have been shown to fight harmful oxidative stress in the body and possibly play a role in the treatment of?cardiovascular disease, says dietitian Natalie Rizzo.
Nitrates play a role in blood pressure control, with studies finding that drinking beetroot juice is an effective way to improve blood pressure levels, she adds.
Beans and legumes are high in minerals and fiber, which has been shown to help protect against heart disease, the American Heart Association notes.
They also provide plant-based protein without the saturated fat found in some animal proteins.
Phytochemicals found in beans and legumes are “considerably beneficial” in improving cholesterol levels and reducing markers of chronic inflammation, a 2021 study found.
In addition, high amounts of dietary fiber — like those provided by beans — have an anti-obesity effect and are “profoundly effective” in preventing obesity-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, the authors noted.
A study involving more than 190,000 U.S. veterans found those who ate more yogurt had higher levels of HDL, the good cholesterol, and lower levels of triglycerides — a beneficial ratio.
Other dairy, such as milk and cheese, didn't provide the same health benefits, so the probiotics in yogurt seem to be the key ingredient, the authors said.
"All yogurt is good for the heart," they concluded. "The more yogurt you eat, the more benefit you get."
Eating more whole grains like whole-wheat flour, oatmeal and brown rice, instead of white flour, white bread and white rice, improves cardiovascular risk factors, the scientific statement from the American Heart Association noted.
Oats, for example, contain a fermentable soluble fiber that helps?reduce cholesterol by "grabbing onto it and escorting it through your digestive system and out of your body," says nutritionist Joy Bauer.
Eating more whole grains also helps people stop midlife weight gain, a recent study found.
Cold-water fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines, contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, according to the National Institutes of Health. Eating 3 grams of omega-3s every day — the amount provided by 4 to 5 ounces of Atlantic salmon — could help lower blood pressure, a 2022 study found.
"Omega-3 fatty acids are going to have a profound impact on cardiovascular health," Smith said. "It's going to slow the buildup of plaque in the arteries."
The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish per week, particularly from the above list, noting fish is a good source of protein that’s not high in saturated fat.
Don't deep-fry fish, Smith cautioned. Bake or steam it instead.
Fans of avocado toast, rejoice. Eating two or more servings of the fruit per week was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a 2022 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Keep in mind one serving equals half an avocado, so it's best to not overdo it because the calories add up quickly.
Replacing half a serving daily of margarine, butter, egg, yogurt, cheese or processed meats with the same amount of avocado was also associated with a lower risk, the same study found.
Eating?avocados five or more times per week was linked with a 17% decrease in the rate of high blood pressure, separate research found in 2023.
Extra virgin olive oil
A key component of the Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil is a healthy monounsaturated fat that's been called “one of the most nutrient-dense and disease-fighting foods on the planet.”
It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Eating more than half a tablespoon of olive oil per day was associated with a 19% lower risk of dying from heart disease compared to never or rarely consuming it, a 2022 study found.
Olive oil can lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL, and it’s been shown to lower blood pressure, the American Heart Association noted.
Nature’s colorful gems are low in calories and high in fiber, vitamins and antioxidants — compounds that combat cell damage.
Eating a cup of blueberries a day reduces the risk factors for cardiovascular disease by up to 15%, a 2019 study found.
When people with obesity ate that amount of blueberries in freeze-dried form every day for six months, researchers saw improvements in their vascular function and arterial stiffness, compared to a placebo group.
A tomato-rich diet is associated with a diverse range of health benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, a 2022 review of studies noted.
Antioxidants found in tomatoes — including lycopene, beta-carotene and vitamin C — can help prevent the formation of atherosclerosis, the harmful buildup of plaque in arteries.
Tomato sauce plus olive oil produced the maximum effect, likely because the body absorbs lycopene better when it's been dissolved in olive oil and heated, the authors wrote.
Dietitian Kristin?Kirkpatrick recommends adding "blood pressure-friendly" options to your spice cabinet, such as cinnamon.
She points to a?2021 randomized controlled trial that?found significant reductions in systolic blood pressure when 1,500 milligrams of cinnamon — about half a teaspoon — was added to the diet for 90 days.
Studies have shown an association between eating chocolate and a lower risk of heart disease, nutritionist Keri Glassman points out.
Dark chocolate is rich in flavanols, a natural compound that can lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease, adds Frances Largeman-Roth, a registered dietitian. She recommends 1 ounce of dark chocolate a day.
No wonder cardiologists list dark chocolate as one of their favorite desserts.
Drinking two to three cups of coffee a day is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and heart rhythm problems, researchers reported in 2022.
Based on the results, that "magic number" of cups can be "very, very good for you," NBC senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres said on TODAY.
For healthy people, drinking that amount of coffee was associated with a 10-15% lower risk of developing heart disease, heart failure, heart rhythm problems or dying prematurely.?
For people who already had heart problems, drinking two to three cups a day was associated with lower odds of dying compared with abstaining.