BY CHARLOTTE MARTIN, RD
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. Over 600,000 Americans die from heart disease each year.—about one in every four deaths.
Since February is National Heart Health Month, you may be curious as to what steps you can take this month for a healthier heart.
In our article on heart-healthy food swaps, we recommended nine food swaps to help strengthen your heart, and these are a great place to start. For many of us, eating heart-healthy means eliminating foods from the diet, like cutting out high-saturated-fat foods, such as butter and some meats.
But a heart-healthy diet can also mean adding certain foods to your diet. Aside from the obvious, like avocado and salmon, you may be shocked to hear that some of your favorite indulgences can be included as part of a heart-healthy, well-balanced diet, and we’ve got the research to back them up!
Check out these surprisingly heart-healthy foods you’re not eating but should.
This one might be the least shocking of the bunch, but eggs have suffered a bad rap over the years. It’s not until recently that their undeserved reputation of being heart unhealthy was dispelled, thanks to several studies proving that egg consumption doesn’t raise cholesterol levels or contribute to heart disease.
While it’s true that egg yolks do indeed contain a lot of cholesterol—one large egg contains 187 mg, over half of the daily-recommended limit—their consumption doesn’t raise total or “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. In fact, eating eggs every day has been shown to increase only “good” HDL cholesterol levels. In one study, overweight men with metabolic syndrome following a carbohydrate-restricted diet were instructed to consume either three eggs per day or the equivalent amount of egg substitute containing no cholesterol for 12 weeks. The study demonstrated that daily consumption of eggs as part of a low carbohydrate diet intervention increased “good” HDL cholesterol levels but didn’t increase “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, thus decreasing the risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome.
Eggs also contain other nutrients that may help lower the risk for heart disease, including protein B vitamins, and vitamin D. Our recommendation? Healthy individuals can safely consume up to three eggs per day as a part of a heart-healthy diet.
Similar to eggs, shrimp were once shunned by those watching their cholesterol numbers. That’s because just a 3-ounce cooked serving provides nearly 200 mg cholesterol, over half of the total daily-recommended limit. However, most high-cholesterol foods also come with a high amount of saturated fat, a nutrient associated with heart disease, and one that shrimp is extremely low in.
Shrimp is also an excellent source of selenium, a deficiency in which has been shown to increase risk of heart failure and cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, research shows that even higher intake of shrimp (300 grams/day) doesn’t negatively affect the lipid profiles of healthy individuals. In fact, it can lower triglyceride and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, as well as improve the ratio of total cholesterol to “good” HDL cholesterol.
With each ounce of cooked shrimp containing only 28 calories and nearly seven grams of protein, you’re also getting more bang for your nutritional buck than with other animal proteins. If you’re planning on adding shrimp to your menu, we recommend avoiding frying or breading your shrimp and opting for steamed, grilled, or baked shrimp instead.
Drinking coffee was once considered as bad for your health as smoking. And while a cup of coffee may have you feeling like your heart’s pumping on overdrive, most research on regular coffee consumption has shown that it’s nothing but cardio protective.
While many of coffee’s benefits probably derive from its caffeine content, numerous other biologically active anti-inflammatory compounds found in coffee, like the antioxidant cholinergic acid, appear to contribute as well. In fact, coffee provides more antioxidants in the average American diet than any other food/beverage.
Regular coffee consumption has been shown to reduce inflammation and risk of stroke and arrhythmias, as well as improve “good” cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity. Additionally, most research indicates that long-term coffee consumption is inversely associated with cardiovascular disease risk, with the lowest risk at three to five cups per day. Moderate coffee consumption, tending toward two or three to as much as four cups of coffee per day, appears to be safe for healthy adults.
Given the favorable research on coffee, our suggestion is to continue or add coffee intake to your day if tolerated, and at no more than four cups per day. Coffee can be taken from heart-healthy to downright bad in just a few seconds, so be sure not to pour in too much creamer or sugar. Instead, try unsweetened almond or cashew milk, and a pinch of stevia.
We often think of tasty foods as unhealthy, so it’s nice to know that peanut butter is an exception. to the rule. You may have been avoiding it in the grocery store due to its high fat content, but research shows that peanut butter can and should be part of a heart-healthy diet.
While peanuts do contain saturated fat, they are also a good source of the cardio protective mono-unsaturated fat oleic acid. Additionally, peanuts are the highest in protein among the nut family; and, protein intake is associated with satiation and weight control, which supports heart health. In one prospective study, consumption of peanuts appeared to be just as effective at preventing heart disease as eating other nuts—a promising find for the humble peanut.
Other research shows that daily consumption of one and a half ounces of peanuts doesn’t negatively affect cholesterol levels. In fact, individuals with elevated total cholesterol and triglyceride levels saw improvements in these levels. Since peanuts and peanut butter generally cost less than other nuts and nut butters, they can be a cost-effective, heart-healthy snack for those on a budget.
Keep in mind, peanut butter, like other nut butters, is calorically-dense, so it’s important to keep portions in check. We recommend no more than two tablespoons per day as part of a healthy diet, and be sure to choose peanut butters without added sugars or fats.
Foods that spike your taste buds with spice can often leave us with that uncomfortable feeling of heartburn. But for those of us who can tolerate them, spicy foods can give our hearts a healthy boost.
Research has shown that capsaicin, the stuff in hot peppers that gives them their kick, can boost heart health in several ways. First, it can lower cholesterol levels by reducing the formation of atherosclerotic plaque and increasing the breakdown and excretion of cholesterol in the feces. It can also improve circulation by blocking the action of a gene that restricts flow of blood to the heart and organs. Additionally, capsaicin can benefit weight loss because of its ability to help increase your metabolic rate after a meal and break down fat.
To increase your intake of spicy foods, we recommend adding crushed red pepper flakes to your meal. Start with just a pinch, and increase the amount as tolerated.
Yes, you read correctly, chocolate can be heart healthy!
Consumed in moderation, chocolate may help prevent heart disease. In fact, one study showed that habitual chocolate eaters have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke compared to people who don’t eat chocolate.
Chocolate contains flavonols—compounds that have antioxidant-like properties that can help increase blood flow, prevent blood clots, reduce inflammation, and lower blood pressureOpens a New Window.. High concentrations of flavonols are also found in tea, wine, and certain types of fruits and vegetables. Before you reach for that chocolate bar, it’s important to understand that not all chocolate is created equal.
When selecting chocolate, the darker the better, because the flavonols just mentioned contribute to its pigment. We recommend sticking to unsweetened cocoa powders and chocolate with at least 60% cocoa solids.
You’ve probably heard how a glass of red wine a day can provide heart benefits. Well, for those who aren’t of legal drinking age yet, you’re in luck! Its non-alcoholic counterpart, grape juice, may support the heart in a similar fashion.
Resveratrol and anthocyanins, compounds the at are responsible in part for red wine’s health benefits, are also present in grape juice. Consumption of red and purple grape juices, in particular, has been shown to help reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, increase “good” HDL cholesterol levels, support healthy arteries, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and support healthy blood vessels.
When selecting a grape juice, be sure to choose one that is 100% grape juice with no added sugar, as the grapes themselves already contain a lot of natural sugar..
Keep in mind that it’s also beneficial to eat whole grapes, since they have the same antioxidants found in grape juice but have the added benefit of dietary fiber.
When it comes to heart-healthy alcoholic beverages, red wine is typically first to come to mind. But did you know that beer can also support a healthy heart?
According to preliminary research recently presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions moderate beer drinkers, consuming one to two beers per day for men and half to one beer per day for women, had a slower decrease in “good” cholesterol levels over time compared to non-drinkers, therefore lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease. Beer also contains trace amounts of heart-healthy nutrients, like B vitamins and magnesium.
Any alcohol consumed beyond moderation is no longer healthy, so we recommend no more than one, twelve-ounce beer per day for women and two per day for men.