If diet is one of the biggest contributors to heart disease, changing your diet is one of the best ways to prevent it. Even if you already have heart disease, the right diet can help you reverse it—something no cholesterol-lowering pill will do—by improving your cholesterol readings and taming high blood pressure, steadying blood sugar, dousing inflammation and even taking off extra weight.
1. Fatty fish
According to a recent study, consuming small quantities of fish—just half a serving a week—lowers the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 17 percent and the risk of a nonfatal heart attack by 27 percent. Each additional weekly serving reduces the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by another 4 percent.
The fats in fish help stabilize heart rhythms to prevent arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats that can lead to heart failure, blood clots, and stroke); lower cholesterol and triglycerides; and reduce inflammation in the arteries, which was recently discovered to play a major role in heart disease. Fish eaters have levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, that are up to 33 percent lower than those of people who don’t eat fish. Because high levels of CRP have been found in heart attack patients whose cholesterol levels were normal, some heart specialists believe it may be even better than cholesterol for predicting who will develop heart disease.
Aim for: At least two servings of fatty fish (8 to 12 ounces total) a week. Since mercury contamination is a concern, opt for fish lower in mercury, such as salmon, and steer clear of highly contaminated fish, including shark, swordfish, fresh and frozen tuna, and escolar.
2. A rainbow of fruits and vegetables
Research from a major survey that analyzed the connection between disease risk and fruit and vegetable consumption in more than 9,000 healthy adults showed that eating a fruit or vegetable at every meal cut the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 27 percent. Fruits and vegetables are among the best sources of fiber, which lowers cholesterol and helps reduce the low-grade inflammation in our bodies that contributes to heart disease. Opt for brightly colored fruits and vegetables; they contain the most antioxidants, which counteract the damage free radicals do to arteries and help prevent the breakdown of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol that leads to plaque buildup. You can’t rely on supplements for your antioxidants, since they don’t seem to have the same effects as food.
Aim for: At the very least, get 3 to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day (a serving is one medium piece of fruit; 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetable juice; 1/2 cup of chopped fruit or cooked vegetables, beans, or legumes; or 1 cup of leafy vegetables). Having 7 to 10 daily servings is even better.
3. Oatmeal, oat bran, legumes, beans, and peas
Their secret ingredient: soluble fiber, which reduces cholesterol by soaking it up so it’s flushed it out of the body as waste. Studies show that diets low in fat and rich in soluble fiber can reduce total cholesterol levels by 10 to 15 percent, which in many cases may be enough to get you into the target range.
Aim for: 25 to 35 g of fiber each day. Of that, 10 grams should be soluble fiber.
4. Extra-virgin olive oil
Olives and olive oil are mainstays of the famously heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. They contain monounsaturated fat, which is healthier for the heart than saturated fat. But olives—which are fruits, after all—and their oil also contain antioxidants called polyphenols, which, research suggests, help reduce inflammation in the blood vessels and help improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Opt for extra-virgin olive oil; because it’s minimally processed, it retains many of the polyphenols that are stripped from more heavily processed olive oils.
Aim for: Limit yourself to no more than 2 to 3 teaspoons of oil or 24 to 30 medium olives daily. Remember, olives and olive oil are meant to replace other fats in your diet, not be added to them.
5. Walnuts, almonds, and peanuts
Eating nuts in place of other fatty foods can potentially lower your risk of heart disease by up to 39 percent, according to research done at Pennsylvania State University. Although nuts contain a lot of fat, it’s the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated varieties, which lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease. Nuts also seem to lower CRP and fibrinogen, both of which are markers for inflammation. Plus, they’re good sources of fiber and protein as well as vitamin E, the B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium, all of which are essential for good heart health.
Aim for: Just 1 ounce of nuts at least five times a week.
6. Tofu, edamame, and soy milk
Like other beans, soy is an excellent source of protein with none of the saturated fat of meat. It also contains hormone-like compounds called isoflavones that seem to help fight certain cancers. Tasteless chunks of tofu are not your only option—although tofu really is good in stir-fries because it takes on the flavor of the sauce. You can add it to beef stir-fries to cut down on the amount of meat you use or add it to lasagna in place of some of the cheese (you won’t notice the swap). But one of the simplest and tastiest ways to enjoy soy is by stocking the freezer with edamame, either in or out of their shells. They make a fun, satisfying snack when you squeeze them out of their pods (thaw them first), or you can sprinkle shelled soybeans on salads or into soups.
Aim for: There’s no official recommendation, but you can do your heart good by occasionally eating soy foods instead of meats and dairy products. When you eat tofu, choose the low-fat variety.
7. Wine, beer, and spirits
Red wine gets all the attention in terms of heart health, but other types of alcohol also protect against heart disease when consumed in moderation. In general, alcohol increases HDL (“good”) cholesterol, lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and in some cases, reduces fibrinogen and CRP, the inflammation markers. A recent study done at the University of Florida found that older adults who have one alcoholic beverage a day were 30 percent less likely to develop heart disease. Another study of cardiac patients hospitalized after heart attacks found that study participants who averaged two drinks a day were 32 percent less likely to experience fatal heart attacks.
Aim for: One to two drinks a day (the higher number is for men) is the amount considered generally safe and beneficial to the heart.
You may think of fruits and vegetables when you think of antioxidants, but tea is an even better source of these disease fighters. Green tea is associated with reduced cholesterol levels and lower rates of artery blockages. But both black and green teas contain significant amounts of flavonoids, antioxidants that appear to protect against heart disease by slowing the breakdown of LDL cholesterol, preventing blood clots, and improving blood vessel function.
People who drink a cup or two of tea a day have a 46 percent lower risk of developing narrowed arteries. Upping that to three cups a day lowers the risk of having a heart attack by 43 percent and of dying from a heart attack by 70 percent.
Aim for: Two to five cups of green or black tea daily.
9. Cranberry juice
Research suggests that cranberry juice, one of the richest sources of antioxidants, can raise levels of HDL cholesterol. In a three-month study of 19 volunteers with high cholesterol, three servings of cranberry juice a day boosted their HDL cholesterol levels by 10 percent, which in turn lowered their risk of heart disease by 40 percent.
Aim for: Three 4- to 6-ounce servings a day.
Apples contain bushels of antioxidants that, like statin drugs, stimulate the liver to remove harmful LDL cholesterol from the blood. In addition, the antioxidants in apples and apple juice delay the breakdown of LDL cholesterol by about 20 percent. The longer it takes for LDL to break down, the less plaque there is in the arteries.
Aim for: Two apples or 1 1/2 cups of 100 percent apple juice a day.
11. Red grapefruit
In an Israeli study of 57 men and women who had had bypass surgery and whose cholesterol levels weren’t responding to statin medications, those who ate a red grapefruit a day for 30 days along with their regular meals lowered their total cholesterol by more than 15 percent, their LDL cholesterol by more than 20 percent, and their triglycerides by more than 17 percent. Because grapefruit can interact with certain medications, check with your doctor first if you’re taking one or more prescription drugs.
Aim for: 1 cup of fresh grapefruit or 1/2 cup of 100 percent grapefruit juice a day.
Fresh cloves contain an antioxidant compound that gives garlic its characteristic aroma, which may explain why garlic may be helpful for reducing blood clots and artery plaque and modestly lowering cholesterol. When eaten daily along with other heart-healthy foods, garlic can help lower heart disease risk by 76 percent.
Garlic’s blood-thinning properties are helpful, but if you’re already taking a blood-thinning drug such as warfarin (Coumadin), or you have a blood or platelet disorder or are going into the hospital for surgery or to have a baby, talk to your doctor before consuming large amounts of garlic.
Aim for: Some experts suggest eating as many as two to four cloves a day.
13. Tomato sauce
Tomatoes contain lycopene, one of the more potent antioxidants in the carotenoid family that appears to protect against heart disease by preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. When researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at fat samples from nearly 1,400 men who’d had heart attacks and compared them with samples from healthy men, they found that the men who had more lycopene in their fat had about half the risk of heart attack compared to those with less lycopene.
Aim for: 1/2 cup twice a week.
14. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate is full of the same antioxidants found in red wine and green tea. In fact, it contains more flavonols (a subclass of flavonoids, in case you’re paying attention to the technical stuff) than tea or red wine and has about four times the catechins in tea. These compounds prevent blood clots, slow the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (making it less likely to stick to artery walls), improve blood vessel function, and reduce inflammation. Another plus for chocolate: It gives good cholesterol a slight boost.
Of course, chocolate’s high in fat, but a third of that fat is stearic acid, a particular type of saturated fat that doesn’t raise cholesterol, while another third is a type of monounsaturated fat that lowers cholesterol.
Aim for: Some research suggests that 1.5 ounces a day may reduce the risk of heart disease by 10 percent. Look for dark chocolate that contains at least 60 percent cocoa.
Adapted From Food Cures (Reader’s Digest Association Books)