The Best Foods for Your Heart, According to a Cardiologist
As you may have heard, unfortunately most of the best foods on earth can cause cardiovascular disease. So what are you supposed to eat all day?
Your basic fruits and vegetables are gimmes -- eat lots of them -- but Dr. Seth Martin, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, says there are a few other staples to add to your diet for a healthy heart.
Beans & lentils
Beans and lentils are fiber superstars, which may not be as cool as Mick Jagger, but will help keep your heart working as long as his has. “In general, people in the U.S. have too little fiber in their diet,” Dr. Martin points out. “So I advise patients to try to incorporate more of it into their meals.” Other smart folks agree with Dr. Martin; scientists have consistently found fiber to be associated with lower LDL cholesterol, and beans in particular are linked with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Carbohydrates have been getting some glares lately, and Paleo proponents may not agree with this assessment, but whole grains are still an important part of what you should be eating. A whole grain is a cereal like wheat, rice, or barley whose bran (the outside of a grain kernel) hasn’t been removed.
And white bread with tiny brown specks of wheat in it doesn’t qualify; it’s the 100% whole grain grain stuff that gets you the fiber and B vitamins your heart needs. We’ve covered fiber, but B vitamins are responsible for ensuring that homocysteine (associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease) doesn’t accumulate.“Whole grains are a big thing, whether they’re coming in the form of bread or cereal, rice or pasta,” says Dr. Martin.
Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts -- can you name every nut? It really doesn’t matter too much which kind you prefer, since they’re all little powerhouses of minerals, protein, and healthy fats. It turns out that they’re also pretty good at reducing cholesterol, so Dr. Martin suggests eating them whenever you can: on your cereal, with your yogurt, or as a snack on their own.
Extra-virgin olive oil
If you’ve tried the extra-virgin olive oil from Spain, Italy, or Greece, it’s hard to believe this stuff is healthy. It tastes so damn good you could guzzle it from the bottle. But alas: “It’s not like you can just drink a bunch of olive oil and [become] healthy,” Dr. Martin warns, putting the kibosh on a potential “Gallon Olive Oil Challenge.”
Olive oil has lots of unsaturated fat, which helps keep your cholesterol levels low, especially compared with butter, or worse, margarine. This is the place to get fancy: buying a nice bottle of extra-virgin olive oil is like buying a bottle of nice scotch, instantly transforming you into a mature, sophisticated adult.
Super spices: garlic, turmeric, and ginger
When a dish needs a little something, we usually reach for the salt. But there are so many different, flavorful herbs and spices you can add to your food that are way healthier. When you use a pinch of something else, the first thing you’re doing is avoiding that blood-pressure-raising cardiovascular health enemy. As a bonus, garlic, turmeric, and ginger have a variety of heart-promoting and anti-inflammatory effects.
The first good thing about eating fish is that it’s going to be the protein source in your meal -- in other word, you probably don’t have the stomach capacity to down a dozen wings with your salmon filet at every meal (or DO you?). Plus, fish, with its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, is related to a reduced risk of dying of heart disease. And dying is bad.
Eating more yogurt is linked with a reduced risk of heart attack. Dr. Martin says it’s also about how yogurt can work together with other parts of your meal. Really high in protein, Greek yogurt balances out the carbs you’re eating, and it’s highly amenable to being combined with other tasty, yet healthy, foods. “Oftentimes, people will eat the yogurt with fruit,” he observes. “So they’re mixing and matching different components of this diet.” Sprinkle on some nuts, and you’re getting all the good stuff in one go! Just make sure you’re not buying the processed kind with loads of added sugar, which nullifies any advantage you get from choosing yogurt in the first place.
Drink lots of wine! As much as you want! Kidding, obviously. “I do have to say it’s a little controversial for a physician to recommend alcohol,” Dr. Martin admits. But he feels that if there’s no history of alcohol abuse, wine is more than fine.
Experts tend to say that the antioxidant resveratrol is the driver of wine’s cardiovascular benefits, but Dr. Martin has another theory to explain wine’s reputation as a health-promoting adult beverage. “Wine is classically enjoyed with family and friends, and that whole social aspect of things is probably part of why folks in the Mediterranean countries have lower incidence of heart disease,” he says. “It is about the foods they’re eating, but it’s also the way in which they eat: in the company of friends and family, laughter, good cheer, and wine.”
Speaking of the Mediterranean, if many of these foods seem like they belong together, it’s because they’re largely part of the Mediterranean diet. People living on the Mediterranean have really low rates of cardiovascular disease, and scientists (observant people that they are) have noticed.
When they investigated what the Greeks and their neighbors were eating, it turned out that there wasn’t one magic food, but an approach to eating that included a variety of heart-healthy dishes. “When we look at a specific food we shouldn’t be asking is this bad or good, but rather, is it something I should have as the base of my diet on a daily basis -- or is it OK to have it every now and then?” emphasizes Dr. Martin.
“Ultimately, the most important thing is to learn the components that make up a heart-healthy diet, and find ways to balance these out and combine them in a pattern that works for you,” Dr. Martin advises. “Be creative, mix, and match.” Guess that means dinner will be wine and yogurt.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Marina Komarovsky is a Freelance Writer for Thrillist and a recent analysis of her grocery bills showed that 50% of her income is going toward Greek yogurt. For more on nutrition on your health, follow her tweets @MariKomarovsky.